In the days following, they fell into an easy pattern.
Ellie Navarrete would spend her early mornings and late evenings with Shreya. The rest of her schedule was dedicated to visits to Stockbrunn’s Town Hall and classroom time in Gaurin’s drop-in course. Her mother had yet to give her another chance at attending an Intendant meeting, but had her working and learning all the same.
The manual labor of sweeping, mopping, and reorganizing paper piles into folders felt beneath her, but everything else felt heads-and-shoulders beyond her. There was no middle ground when it came to her hours in the Town Hall. Day one, Hildegarde taught her about ledger books and what they mean and why balancing the ledger was so important for a functional town. Then, Ellie had to learn about import/export tracking sheets and how to manage their profits.
Another day was all about technical botanical papers, weather forecasts, and reports on the rise-and-fall of dairy quality from the Agricultural Department. Aunt Catalina stopped by to go over cross-referencing crime and legal data against various district-wide factors. And on a day after that, Ellie was tortured by hours of sorting through journal entries and documentation from the ambassadors they had stationed in other Casternian cities. The list of things she saw and had to review went on and on and on.
She was given a taste of what each Intendant was in charge of. As small as that bite was, though, she still felt like she was choking under the dump of information her mother foisted onto her. Leading Stockbrunn meant keeping track of that thing and that thing, and, oh, you better not forget that other thing that is only the tip of the iceberg of things you’ve gotta remember. Ellie had never deluded herself into thinking it’d be an easy job, but seeing it for herself served as a reminder that Chiefdom wasn’t for the weak-spirited.
If it weren’t for Shreya’s encouragement, Ellie would’ve backed down from it. It was actually because of her that Ellie had volunteered her time like this. It may have been the second entry in their exchange diary where Ellie confessed some of her worries concerning her future position. Forget her desire or non-desire, could she do it? Was she capable of making the same kinds of decisions her parents and ancestors had?
After reading that (much to Ellie’s embarrassment that Shreya had done so in front of her), Shreya closed their notebook, gave her a hard stare, and convinced her to give it a try. Shreya had asked her something to the effect of, “how would you know if you don’t ever make an attempt? No one was born knowing the things they know now. Learning takes time.”
That night at dinner when she’d asked Hildegarde if she could start working around the Town Hall some more, her mother was so happy she nearly cried. Ellie’d been told that she got her emotional side from her father, but moments like that proved that Vicente wasn’t solely to blame for the inherited parts of her personality.
It helped that Ellie’s reward for a hard day’s work came in the form of kisses, hugs, and cuddles. Shreya became a close-to-the-heart secret that Ellie used to propel herself forward. Knowing that she’d be there for her no matter what gave Ellie the sense she could do anything. Even if she messed up on something or got an answer wrong in class, it didn’t matter, because at the end of the day, she had someone waiting for her who thought the world of her.
Sitting on a bench in Rocha Park, an outdoor recreational area in Stockbrunn, Ellie couldn’t hold back her bubbliness. It came through in the gentle forward-and-back swing of her legs and her giggling over just about everything. Perhaps if she was alone, she wouldn’t allow herself to look so silly, but having Zinnia with her meant she could play off her giggly fits as laughing at her friend’s good joke.
The park was less busy at this time in the afternoon. Both girls had decided to give themselves a day off from Gaurin’s lesson. They needed time to recuperate, Zinnia after assisting in an hours-long pig birth, and Ellie after helping her mother refine a speech she was going to deliver some time later in the week.
Small pockets of children congregated around the wooden playground equipment. An older boy and girl sat at another bench, cozy with one another and in the middle of a conversation that had the girl hanging off of the boy’s every word. Not too far off from them were the tree swings, each one occupied by a parent-child pair.
“Isn’t it so cute how Shreya makes her letters?” Ellie flipped through her and Shreya’s shared journal, stopping at a mostly sap-free page.
“I thought the point of a couple’s diary is to keep it private between the two of you,” Zinnia said. “Why doesn’t anyone understand that?”
“Oh, I understand it. I just like showing off. I mean, look at all the nice things she’s saying about me.”
Zinnia took the notebook. She brought it up to her face, her eyes straining. “How can you possibly understand a single thing this says?”
“Writing’s not her forte.”
“I can see that. ‘Seeing happy. Missed you. You thinking’—she spelled that wrong, by the way—’think of me when I think of you?’ Okay, that is kind of cute, but she writes as badly as my littlest brother. There’s a lot of ink smears. What’s this part down here supposed to mean?”
“Apparently it’s a poem for me written in her language. She said it’s amateur, but it sounded beautiful when she read it out loud for me.” Ellie sighed dreamily at the memory.
Zinnia grinned. “Who’s ‘E’ ‘Lee’?”
“That’s me. I don’t have it in me to correct her,” Ellie said. “So to her my name’s spelled like E L E E.”
“If she’s reading a book like Cavalier, I’m surprised her writing’s this poor. This is bad… Now I feel bad for recommending something above her level.”
“I think she likes the struggle, I dunno. Maybe writing’s something she just hasn’t gotten a whole lot of practice with. Check out another page and you’ll see she’s gotten a little better. This is one of our earlier entries.”
“I’d rather not. I know how you can get in your entries.”
“Huh? Did Freesia show you our book?”
“She liked showing off her relationships as much as you do,” Zinnia said, “but don’t worry, I didn’t see anything too personal.”
“I don’t know how to feel about that…” She frowned.
“Did you really think my sister wouldn’t have talked to me about you? Freesia was chatty.”
“Talking about us, sure, but showing you our diary’s kind of crossing the line.”
“Then perhaps you should stop showing me you and Shreya’s diary.” Zinnia closed it and handed it back to her. “I’d also suggest blotting out all the names and personal details inside of it. You don’t know whose hands it could fall into.”
“Do you know what happened to our diary?” Ellie ran her knuckles down the front of the diary’s leather-bound cover. “I think I’d like to read it again.”
“I imagine that my father burned it with the rest of her belongings. He’s a cruel and unfeeling man,” Zinnia replied. She stared off wistfully towards one of the tree swings, where a parent was gently pushing a laughing child.
“Oh…well, I guess we’d have to start a new one, anyway. It’d be weird to continue where we left off on the old one.”
“You’ll never change your mind about her, will you?”
“I know she’s out there. It’s an undeniable feeling. Don’t ask me to explain it,” Ellie said. “As soon as we can head back into the woods, me and Shreya are gonna go back to searching for her. I’ve got a clue.”
“Is it a letter?”
“No, why would you think it was a letter? It’s a flower that she was always talking about, one that could bring someone back to life. I think if I can find it, I’ll be able to find something else that points me in her direction.”
Zinnia shrugged. “If you had a letter from her, you’d have more of a reason to think she’s still with us. Instead you’re hunting for a magical item that doesn’t exist. In fact, while you’re at it, you should go to a witch’s house and get some help from one.”
“There’s no need to get nasty with me. A bunch of legends surround the flower but that doesn’t mean the flower itself isn’t real.”
“Sorry,” Zinnia said. “I don’t understand where your ardent belief comes from. It’s borderline unhealthy.”
“And you’re being borderline rude.”
“It’s whatever.” Ellie leaned back against the park bench. “She’s someone worth getting rude about so I don’t blame you. I would’ve been much worse than you if our positions were reversed. You’re better at holding yourself together.”
“On a slightly unrelated note… How are Klaus and Viktor?”
“Valentino,” she corrected, “and you know how we’re doing. The only thing that would make us better is if she’d move into town. I’m working on convincing her bit by bit. I can’t push her too badly on it so it’s slow-going. At least she and Marietta seem to be getting along better now. That’s one more plus in this whole thing.”
“I’m guessing you forgot about what we talked about. Remember how Valentino was suspicious of Klaus?”
“Yeah, but I don’t think he has any more reason to worry about him. Klaus is a genuine guy. Who but the most genuine would write such lovely things?” Ellie ran her thumb through the diary’s pages.
“I took out this book from the library.” Zinnia pulled it out from her bag. The cover was plain, save for its title and author name. “Janne Karppinen is a well-respected anthropologist. He once did an ethnography on a band of woods dwellers. I think you should read it.”
“I bet he made it all up. Don’t confuse fiction for fact. You’re better than that.”
“There’s some parts that are hard to believe, I’ll grant you that, and yes, people have issues with his methods and verifying his work, but… He’s pretty much one of the definitive voices in this area,” Zinnia said.
“Who’s to say the woods dwellers he studied have anything to do with Shreya’s woods dwellers, huh?”
“This will give you a better understanding of them in general.”
“What year was this written? I bet you this isn’t current, so what’s the point in reading it?”
“It’s not like there’s a wealth of woods dweller information out there, Ellie. Read the book. There are things in there that don’t match up with anything we know about Shreya so far. And believe me, I’m not trying to ruin your relationship. I’m just trying to protect you.”
“Well, me and Shreya have decided we’re just gonna focus on each other. It’s not about Stockbrunn or being a woods dweller with us. It’s just me and her.”
“Whose idea was that? Hers?”
“I did, and we made a promise to each other. So even if this book says something bad about her, I don’t care.”
“You’re being irresponsible.”
“Since you’re not going to read it yourself, I’m going to point something out to you. Woods dwellers don’t have their own reading and writing system. They’re a nomadic society,” Zinnia said, “and Karppinen didn’t find evidence of an age-based hierarchy. They’re anarchists, and if you look at the book—”
“I’m not looking at the damn book!”
“If you look at the book and use it to better understand their origins,” Zinnia finished, “you’ll see why the things she’s told you don’t fit. You can hate Karppinen’s theories and research. You can think of him as a liar, but the history in there is true.”
“The history was obviously rewritten so it’d lend itself better to whatever bullshit he invented. You can’t study woods dwellers in this way. It’s all a bunch of folklore and horror fuel,” Ellie reasoned. “It’s propaganda to make people afraid of leaving Stockbrunn.”
“You can come to your own conclusions about it once you read it. Read it side by side with one of our historical books or better yet, why don’t you ask the Chieftess who the woods dwellers once were?”
“I know that already. They were stubborn fools, exiled criminals, and people who rejected the idea of a civilized society.”
“How would a group like Shreya’s branch off from that?” Zinnia asked. “How would they have advanced to this point without wanting anything to do with us? There’s some shared level of technology, isn’t there? She understood what a book was.”
“It’s a book, not electricity. You don’t have to be all that advanced for a book.”
“Ellie, I know that you care about her, but even you have to admit that there is something to what I’m saying here.”
“What am I supposed to do about it? Stand up, confront her, and call her a liar? What good is that going to do?”
As soon as she did that, it would be over. Shreya would up and run and head back to her home, never to be seen again. They had something good going. Ellie couldn’t risk losing her over something that may or may not be true. What did Janne Karppinen know about woods dwellers, anyway? What made him, some guy who wasn’t even from Stockbrunn or this area of Casterne, an authority on the subject?
Ellie had sworn to Shreya that she wouldn’t let anyone interfere with their relationship. It was theirs and theirs alone. Part of her motivation in making that promise was the insurance that Shreya’s family wouldn’t ruin them either, but the promise still worked both ways. For Shreya to uphold her end of it, Ellie would need to uphold hers.
“You can’t let her cloud your judgment,” Zinnia said. “You need to have a clear head about this.”
“You want me to give her up for no reason?”
“This town’s the reason.”
“Why do you suddenly care so much? You hate this place.”
“I hate it as much as you do, that’s true.”
“What’s me giving her up have anything to do with Stockbrunn? You’re talking in circles here. Give it to me straight.”
“Because if she is a bad person, then we’re all at risk. What if she’s…I can’t believe I’m saying this, but what if she’s Erzyan and this is the precursor to another Erzyan-Casternian War? What if she was sent here by them?”
Ellie laughed, the taste in her mouth bitter. “I can’t believe you said that, either. She’s a woods dweller from Casterne. She’s no Erzyan spy.”
“Doesn’t it make sense? Was there ever a true declaration of peace or did we have an armistice that blurred into a mutually assured destruction type of situation?”
“Your imagination’s gotten the better of you. Shreya is a normal, excuse me, extraordinary girl from the forest. There’s nothing more to her than that,” Ellie said. “I mean, don’t you think their plan would’ve been a lot more sophisticated than one girl?”
“We don’t know what their plan is. You just need to be more mindful of all the possibilities here,” Zinnia said. “Again, I’m not trying to destroy your relationship. I’m only trying to make you more aware of what could be going on.”
“You’re acting like a deranged conspiracy theorist! This is bizarre. I can’t accept anything you’re saying.” She slid the exchange diary back into her bag. “If you don’t want to destroy our relationship then stay out of it. Mind your own damn business.”
“That’s what I did before. I minded my own damn business. I could’ve stopped you and Freesia, but I didn’t. I’m living with that. This whole town’s living with it,” she said. “You don’t have to help someone ruin this town again. You can change. There are people here who need your help.”
“Hey, I don’t know who you are and where you’ve hidden Zinnia Trotter, but I’d like you to bring her back now.”
“You can’t plug your ears up about this, Ellie. Don’t you notice that the common man’s struggling?”
“Wow, okay, congratulations. You were, like, the one person I thought I’d never hear this kind of shit from, but thanks for proving me wrong. Why don’t you get a life and stay out of mine, huh? Go get a girlfriend. Go sling your drugs. I don’t care.”
“When you blew up on Theres, Aigner, and everyone else, I was the only one who stuck by you.”
“Who cares? What does that have to do with anything?”
“You can attack me all you want to, but I know you well enough to know that you’re doing this because you know I’m right about everything. You did it back then and you’re doing it now,” Zinnia said.
“You’re such a bitch.”
“That’s nice of you,” she replied sarcastically. “Pot calling the kettle black much?”
“I’m out of here. I hope you end up in a ditch somewhere, dead.”
“It’ll sooner happen to you than I. You’re the one who’s signed herself up for a beheading.”
“And you, a stabbing!” Ellie cried.
“Head on a pike.”
“Gutted from your neck to your belly.”
“Tongue torn out with a tongue tearer.”
“You’ll get shoved into a guillotine.”
“They’ll draw and quarter you. The Erzyans do that.”
“Ugh, do you ever shut up? I liked you better when I thought you were a mute.”
“And I liked you better when you didn’t have your head up your ass.”
“That’s it! I’m out of here.”
“You said that already. Are you going or not?”
“I am!! Have fun with your sad and pathetic life.”
Ellie snatched up the anthropology book, forced it into her bag, and stomped her way away from stupid Rocha Park with its stupid kids and stupid parents and stupid couples and stupid Zinnia Trotter who stupidly insisted on pretending like she was so much better than anyone else. Where did she get off acting like that?
How would Freesia have reacted to that? She’d obviously have to take Ellie’s side. She would put Zinnia in a headlock, mess up her hair, and then tell her to play nice. Then she would’ve done the same thing to Ellie, come to think of it, and she’d bring them back together to make up. She made things like that—apologies, reconciliations, truces—seem so easy.
Where Ellie was all grudges and spite, Freesia was forgiveness and forgetfulness. She would’ve smoothed this situation over with cookies, flower crowns, and peach lemonade. But she wasn’t here with one of her soul-soothing smiles. Instead, Ellie was alone to broil in her rage.
~ * ~ * ~
“And then, and then she was shameless enough to call me crazy for knowing, not believing, mind you, that Freesia’s alive! What’s with that?”
Well, she wasn’t exactly alone to broil. Shreya made for a good audience, sitting in the grass with her arms behind her for support. Marietta declined joining them. She was busy trying to remove a stain from one of her fabrics, which was too bad since Ellie knew Marietta would’ve loved a good Zinnia rant.
“What did you show her in our diary?” Shreya asked. “Can we go back to that part?”
“It doesn’t matter!” Ellie paced back and forth as she talked. “Zinnia’s a wicked, vile wench who I never want to speak to ever again. She is the absolute worst!”
“The diary is only for us. It is private.”
Ellie took in a full-bodied breath and let it out in a stream. “Okay, I know I messed up on that. I’m sorry. It was just that page where you wrote about how much you missed me. Nothing that no one would’ve been able to guess on their own, anyway.”
“Can you not show it?”
“I won’t do it again, sorry. Truly sorry about that, but what about anything else that I said? What about Zinnia being wretched? What do you think of that?”
“The meaning of wretched is…?”
Ellie leaned down to lessen her current height advantage. “Awful. Really, really awful.”
“If you say she is, then she is.” Shreya gripped Ellie’s pant leg. “You should sit down. Sit down and breathe.”
She sat down, crossing her legs under her. Face to face, they were close enough for their legs to touch. Ellie shut her eyes as Shreya took her by the hands. Her touch grounded her, the sensation relaxing her.
“Better now?” Shreya asked, voice as gentle as someone coaxing an injured animal out of hiding.
“Yeah…” Ellie said.
“What else happened?”
“Well, we had a bit of a spat. It got bad and I maybe said some things I shouldn’t have… She did, too, though. And it really was because I was defending you,” Ellie explained. “I wasn’t going to sit there and listen to her tell me I shouldn’t trust you.”
“You fought about me? I am sorry,” Shreya said. “Do you want me to say sorry to her?”
“It isn’t your fault. Don’t say sorry to her for anything. She’s the one who was saying terrible things about you.”
“You do not believe her.”
“No, of course not. You should’ve seen me. I was livid. I mean, she was really trying to say you’re not a woods dweller. That’s ridiculous. I know you’re exactly who you say you are.”
Shreya nodded. She gave her a slow smile, her happiness taking its time to spread. “That is right.”
“And since you’re who you say you are, I don’t have anything to worry about.”
“You never have to worry when you are with me.”
“Nope! That’s why I couldn’t hear another minute of her rambling. I’m probably gonna have to apologize, but so will she. I’ll be sorry when she’s sorry.”
What a mess. It didn’t have to turn out that way. They could’ve had a civilized discussion where Zinnia brought up her concerns and Ellie calmly responded to them. Simple and easy. Zinnia just had to go and escalate things. She had to keep dealing low blow after low blow. If she’d wanted to infuriate her, then she’d more than succeeded.
“Someone will have to say it first.”
“Tomorrow or the next day or, like, next week or something,” Ellie guessed. “Let’s not keep talking about her. She’s just going to get me mad all over again. So, what are our plans for tonight? I’ll bring you and Marietta some dinner and then we can read together or just talk or anything else you want.”
“Tonight, I was thinking of going home.”
That hit Ellie so hard that she lost her train of thought. “You what?”
Shreya repeated herself at a lower volume. “I was thinking of going home.”
“Why? Does this have something to do with what Zinnia said? Forget about that. I think you’re fine.”
“No. It is time. I can not stay here forever.”
“Nothing’s going wrong. You don’t have to leave.” She tightened her grasp. “You just got here.”
“I have been gone for a week. I am near the limit where they might search for me,” Shreya said. “I am sorry I have to go.”
“Without warning me? You could’ve given me time to prepare. This isn’t fair.”
“This is not a goodbye for always, Ellie. I will be back as soon as I can.”
“You’re not leaving me. The sun’s on its way down,” Ellie argued. “This is the worst time to go. You can’t. Something could happen to you.”
“I will be okay.” Shreya said, calm and self-assured as ever. “You know that I would not leave if I did not have to. I am out of time.”
“You don’t think you could’ve talked to me about this first? You just had to spring this on me out of nowhere?”
“We knew I would have to leave. This is not out of nowhere. I am sorry. I did not want it to be such a problem and like this, you have less time to worry. I swear I will be back before you know it.”
“This isn’t okay. I need you here.” Who was she going to recap her days with? Who was going to reassure her that everything was going to be alright?
“My family needs me too. You get to see yours every day. This is the longest I have been away,” she replied. “Would one more day help? After that, I must go.”
“I can’t force you to stay here. That wouldn’t be right.” She couldn’t be selfish. “Take care of what you need to.”
“If it makes you feel better, I will go after dinner.”
“Yeah, that helps, but…it still hurts. I think I’m gonna go into shock. Is this what shock feels like?”
“Shock? No shock, no shock, please. This is not easy for me.”
“Just make it go by fast.”
“It will be for you. You are busy. Stay busy and it will go fast,” Shreya said.
“I hope you’ll be right. Okay, well, what’s the use in me moping about this? We’ll have a good night. I’ll send you off and I’ll see you as soon as I can. It’ll be that easy.”
“Easy, yes. We will be fine.”
A/N: I have the worst headache right now. Sorry for the 1.5 hr delay!
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Chapter 32 results – 22 votes for Zinnia doing research on woods dwellers and helping Ellie to notice inconsistencies. 1 vote for Marietta assisting with Shreya’s cover.
Chapter 33 results – 12 votes for Shreya’s urge to go home and reconcile with Shanti to increase. 12 votes for no change in Shreya’s urge to go home.
Hope you enjoyed! Voting will end Tuesday on the 25th at 11:59 PM EST. Next chapter on November 1st.