Zinnia Trotter slipped off her mask. Her mind swelled with the surges and swirls of dissent from the voices she’d been listening to for the past hour. The meeting had been largely unproductive.
Discussions had snagged on the subject of missing persons, a topic Zinnia wide berthed. She’d attended for change making, not parlor room style conversations or talks of fancy about the latest newspaper commotions. This was supposed to be about business.
“Doesn’t it interest you in the least bit?” Noemi asked her. She raised a lit stick of rolled herbs to her lips and puffed on it.
Leaning together in a tight alley space in Arntzen, they spoke in hushed tones. The meeting had taken place elsewhere in another district of Stockbrunn. Zinnia and Noemi were there, in the cramped corridor between a squatter’s house and a tchotkee store that was likely a front for something else, to reconvene and recap the night’s proceedings.
Zinnia turned to avoid swallowing Noemi’s smoke. The warm, rosy notes of it were tempting, but Zinnia remembered the better parts of her upbringing and resisted. She answered, “it’s gossip to convince people to buy the papers.”
“First the mother and daughter the other week and now the Seide entrepreneur. That’s three people vanishing, gone, poof.” On the last word, Noemi blew out a stream of heady gray.
“The first two left because of an abusive husband and father. The second one wanted to try her luck in another town. The magistrates aren’t worried about it.”
Noemi grinned, her stick pinched between her lips. She removed it to say, “that’s what makes these cases interesting. Think of why the police don’t care.”
“Not everything’s a conspiracy.” Zinnia kicked at a stray can that had found its way into the alley. It was dented, probably from a cat’s hungry desperation to feast on its contents.
“This feels like one to me. Where are these missing people going?”
“To better places, and they’re not missing.” Zinnia slid her hands into her jacket pockets for warmth. The moon hung high overhead, like a lantern light dangling from an invisible rope.
Noemi followed Zinnia’s sight line. “Beautiful, ain’t it? Nice and bright.”
“It’s the moon. It’s doing its job,” Zinnia said.
“They say the new moon’s supposed to be a manifestation of everybody’s hopes, dreams, and wishes from the full moon.” Noemi paused to take a long drag. “Or maybe it’s the other way around.”
Had the moon derived its celestial structure solely from Zinnia’s hopes and et cetera, there’d be nothing in the sky. Zinnia repeated that line to herself, and smirked at how dark and heavy handed it sounded. She was being too hard on herself, too melodramatic.
It was better to say that she’d provide a spark or an ember of things to come in that darkness. She had momentum building.
“Have you become an astrologist?” Zinnia relaxed against the wall, taking in the late autumnal chill.
“Think it’d suit me? I’m more of a believer in love and the good of all people,” Noemi said.
That struck Zinnia as funny, seeing how Noemi’s line of work required the opposite. If goodness was tied to purity, then her clients were as corrupt as they came. The peddlers were worse than the clients, and Zinnia was part of that insidious web. The love and goodness of people would put them out of business.
Everything trickled down from one chain to the next. Apothecary prices, an uncurable malaise, and a government with its hands over its ears sat at the heart of the issue. Peddlers like Noemi provided a distraction from the daily humdrum, a temporary reprieve from life’s pushes and pulls. It was a service delivered in powders, edibles, meltables, clouds, or dispensed whatever which way was necessary and asked for. It depended on who was selling and who was buying.
Were there times Zinnia regretted being tied up in that? Whenever such feelings arose, she reminded herself of the difference she was making for her family. This was her burden to bear, her unquestioned additions to their till spread out into smaller offerings so not to alert her father to her activities.
Losing her mother to madness and her sister to misguidedness (not to revolution like the radical believed) meant that money and her younger siblings’ care rested on her and her father’s shoulders. He wasn’t doing much in the caring department.
Although Zinnia didn’t think him abusive, Zinnia understood all too well why the mother-daughter pair had disappeared from Stockbrunn. Sometimes, you have to realize when enough is enough and just go.
Can’t go far when you’re tethered here.
“Stockbrunn doesn’t like its people leaving. This town doesn’t make it easy,” Zinnia said.
Noemi pulled out her herbal to let out a smoke plume. “So you’re into those rumors after all. I had a feeling your pissy look during the meeting was a cover-up.”
“I’m not thinking about the rumors. I’m just,” Zinnia started, then stopped herself in the middle of what she was saying.
“Just?” Noemi echoed, interest piqued.
“Just thinking about all of the people who couldn’t leave even if they wanted to. We’re either too obligated to stay, too wise to brave the woods, or too poor to try.” Zinnia hooked her finger around her necklace’s string, her mouth shut in thought. She looked off to the moon once more. “I should leave.”
Noemi shifted her boots, shuffling as she changed her stance. “Want me to walk you back?”
“I’ll be okay. I do this all the time,” Zinnia said. She hid her mask deep inside her bag. “There’s nothing different about tonight.”
“You can stay with me for a bit longer, if you want. Lucio and Gracja saved me leftovers. I know you’re used to better meal than gruel, but food’s food,” Noemi offered. “You look like you could use a break. You’re running yourself ragged, little girl. Slow down.”
Zinnia winced. “Please don’t call me that.”
“Sorry. Blame that faux-pas on the fumes going to my head. How ’bout it? You want to stay or go? Anything else you want to talk about?” Noemi’s eyes were hazing, her syllables losing their precision.
It was possible that she’d been like that she’d been like that for a while, and Zinnia hadn’t noticed until the cold, sobering splash of a nickname her father used to call her as an insult. Then he realized how apt that moniker was and stopped saying it with harmful intentions.
“I need to go to bed, sorry. I’m tired.” Perpetually tired all the time, no matter how much rest she got. “I’ll be okay going by myself. You don’t have to worry.”
Noemi nodded her head more times than was necessary. “A’ight, then. I’ll see you tomorrow at Gracja’s. We have a shipment to pick up. Got some travelling to do into the big scary woods.”
“I’ll pass on that.”
Her boss shrugged and breathed in deeply, the end of her herbal stick coming alive, nicer and brighter than the moon above. Noemi stepped closer. Breath catching in her chest, Zinnia didn’t dare move. It felt like everything inside and outside of her and the town around them had halted.
“Good night, Z.” Noemi patted Zinnia oh so platonically on the shoulder.
Zinnia let out the breath she held. The stain on Casterne otherwise known as Stockbrunn resumed its movements. Something clattered nearby. An animal slinked its way around the corner, its ears on high alert. Its jumper was ripped in the front, a sign of neglect or homelessness, Zinnia didn’t know.
Noemi whistled for the stray cat to join them. She picked up the can Zinnia had kicked earlier, pulled out her pocket knife, and wedged the blade into the tin’s rim. The cat hesitated to approach, so Noemi set the open can down for it to enjoy later.
Zinnia would’ve told Noemi not to do it, but she had to get going. With a curt goodbye, she headed off for her home.
~ * ~ * ~
It turned out Zinnia Trotter had been wrong when she told Noemi that there was nothing different about this night. When she reached her home, she had half a mind to turn back and take Noemi up on her offer.
Standing near her doorstep was Chieftess Navarrete looking the image of a petulant child, or maybe she was simply channeling her daughter. She had her hair in a long, delicate braid over her shoulder. Annoyance—and was that a pout?—had overtaken her features. Once she saw Zinnia, she composed her face into a stone-cold serious one.
“Chieftess Navarrete,” Zinnia greeted, falsified cheer laced in her voice. “Are you here to see my parents?” To give us a better apology? “I’m afraid they’re probably sleeping. This isn’t the best of hours for a conversation, Chieftess Navarrete.”
“I’m not here for them. I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Oh, I can’t let you inside. I don’t want to wake up my parents. That’d be rude of us.” My mother might die if she sees you. “What brings you here, Chieftess Navarrete?”
The Chieftess’ glower seared her. “You have ten seconds to tell me where Ellie is.”
“Ellie’s missing? We haven’t talked in a long time. I don’t know—”
“Where is she?”
“I really don’t know, really, really don’t know.” Zinnia tripped over her words. “We haven’t been hanging out.” She didn’t miss the tension pulsing in the Chieftess’ neck.
“Things won’t go favorably for you if I find out you’re lying. I talked to all of her other friends and they said she’d be with you,” the Chieftess said.
“I haven’t seen her. I… What do you mean by things not going favorably for me? Will you lock me inside of a cage like you did to Freesia?” Fury covered her fear of the woman in front of her. Zinnia held it back as much as she could. “What will you do to me, Chieftess Navarrete?”
“The Intendant of Internal Affairs will determine that.” That show of anger hadn’t swayed the Chieftess. Zinnia shouldn’t have expected it to. The Chieftess was devoid of heart. The Chieftess continued, “you will tell me what you know of Ellie’s whereabouts or I’ll turn you over to the authorities.”
What was Ellie doing? Was she in the middle of a night-long tryst, had she hurt herself, or had the probably Erzyan spy finally made her move? Shreya didn’t seem like she would attack her in the silence of the night, free of an audience. There needed to be something more to it, a giant overture that would lead to another Casternian-Erzyan War. But whose to say what Shreya’s strategy was in all of this, beyond Ellie’s insistence that there was nothing wrong with her?
Or was it more likely that Ellie had lost track of time and…? Did that make an ounce of sense? The smart option here, in this conversation, was probably to give up Ellie’s house in the woods and allow the magistrates and whoever else to storm in. They’d find Ellie and she’d get in trouble, or maybe she wouldn’t because she was their Heiress who was seemingly invulnerable to punishment.
But the prevailing thought in Zinnia’s mind was that giving up Ellie would be letting the Chieftess win. Zinnia knew she wasn’t making the wisest decision, but she chose it anyway. Her insolence and often denied immaturity rose to the urface and spilled out in the bite and gnashing of her next sentence.
“Okay, I do have some idea of where she is, but I’m not telling you, Chieftess Navarrete. I tell you, and you’ll lose her forever,” Zinnia said. “There’s this place she goes when she has to get away. It’s a secret.”
“Tell me.” The Chieftess looked like she was half a step away from hurting Zinnia.
“She’ll never forgive either of us if you go.” Zinnia focused on enjoying the small amount of leverage she had. That focus kept her from trembling. “I can have her back to you by morning.”
“It’s in the woods, isn’t it, this place she disappears to?” The Chieftess’ delivery had softened, although her steely eyes hadn’t.
“It could be,” Zinnia answered.
“Is she safe?”
“As safe as she can be. I swear I’ll bring her to you. You have my word.”
She wondered if the Chieftess recognized that Zinnia was saying her own words back to her. Chieftess Navarrete had sworn to the Trotter family in much the same way. The Chieftess’ search attempts had come back empty, and with dry eyes, she had told the Trotters that Freesia was lost to the woods. Their search efforts had been called off, assuming they made an effort in the first place. That much was doubtful.
“Thank you. I suppose I have no choice but to trust you,” the Chieftess said. “Do what you have to do.” She seemed to struggle to find the proper thing to say. As the only one who knew where Ellie could be, Zinnia held the power here. The Chieftess had to relent. “You bring her to Stockbrunn by the morning, or else we’ll come for both of you. It won’t be pleasant for you if it comes to that.”
“Understood,” Zinnia said, clenching her hands to keep them from shaking. “You’ll have her then.”
~ * ~ * ~
“You deign to beg me to accompany you? Haha, prepare to gravel at my feet. I won’t consider doing anything for you until you do that!” Marietta brought her hand over her mouth and did a poor job of muffling her laugh.
“It’s grovel,” Zinnia corrected, “and you’ll come with me or I’ll knock your house down.”
They stood outside of it, Marietta partway out of its doorway and Zinnia fully on the outs. Zinnia clutched a lantern in her hand. She had a kitchen knife tucked against her waistband by the belt keeping her skirt up. Zinnia didn’t know much about weapons or what things may happen in the woods, but she supposed that kind of blade was better than nothing at all.
Marietta exaggerated her shock. “Oh, the nerve of you! I’ll have you know that I’m Brick-blooded, a descendant from the House of Brick that cannot be taken down by no mirror human or wolf or any other horrid animal. You won’t be knocking my house down.”
Zinnia leaned around to its side, and rapped on its wall with her knuckles. “A strike here will do it. And it’s mere, not mirror.”
“You’d build me a house so weak? For shame! You’re slipping,” Marietta said. “Some day I’ll have the home I deserve.”
“You have it.” Zinnia narrowed her eyes. “Be grateful you have one at all. You’d be a dirty stray out in the streets if it wasn’t for my help.”
Marietta feigned getting slapped. “Ooh, someone’s in a mood. What’s with your sudden obsession with going into the woods, and what does it have to do with me? I did the whole getting-chased-by-a-bear thing once. I’m not doing it again.”
“Ellie never came home.”
“She must be with Shreya. Poor girl was in the most awful, mopiest fog without her around. She kind of reminded me of you, only with a touch less angst.” Marietta cupped her cheeks. “Doesn’t anyone in Stockbrunn know how to be happy anymore?”
“Whatever this overly dramatic acting is, you can stop it right now. I don’t appreciate it,” Zinnia said. “We have ’til morning to get her or else we’re as good as dead.”
“Huh? We? Why do you say we?” Marietta asked.
“Because after the Chieftess is finished arresting me, you’ll be next. This life you have, whatever it is, is going to end.” Zinnia gestured to Marietta’s house.
“The Chieftess is involved. That’s not good.” Marietta’s mocking smile faltered. “It’s been some time since I’ve seen her.”
“You were probably going to be her next stop after me.”
“No, she saw me before you. I told her she should confer with you. You know, I was probably the first one she saw.”
“You’re just saying that,” Zinnia said. “It’s not a competition.”
Marietta twirled around on her bare heel. “Let me change out of my night clothes and we can go find our Heiress. Do you have any idea where she might be or do we only have a few hours to scour an entire forest?” She partially closed her door, leaving a crack for them to chat through.
“I know exactly where she should be.” Zinnia turned around, watching the breeze shake through tree leaves.
“Where she should be,” Marietta repeated. “You don’t sound sure about that.”
“I may have rushed and misspoken.” Zinnia chewed on her thumb.
“Because you’re afraid something may have happened to everyone’s favorite Heiress? I thought you were fighting. Shouldn’t you want her to be gone?”
“No, of course not. We’re fighting but that doesn’t mean I hate her. I don’t hate Ellie,” she said. Zinnia listened to Marietta rustle around for something to wear out of a pile that couldn’t be bigger than three sets of clothes. “And I don’t think something’s happened to her. There’s a small chance of it, but…no, I don’t think anything’s happened.”
“Doubt, doubt, doubt,” Marrietta called out.
“Nothing bad ever happens to her. She gets out of everything unscathed. This won’t be any different. She’s just done something irresponsible and we’re going to bring her home,” Zinnia said. Ellie had all the luck in Stockbrunn. Misfortune always had a way of dancing out of Ellie’s path.
“I’m still hearing doooooubt,” she sang.
“I’m not doubtful. We’ll find her where I know she is, and everything is going to be alright. We’re going to work together and you’re not going to give me any hassle,” Zinnia said.
Finished getting changed into a striped shirt and overalls combination, Marietta stepped out of her door. “I’ll give you as much hassle as I want. You need me more than I need you.”
Zinnia shook her head. “I’m the only one who knows where she might be. We need each other equally as much.”
“Then lead the way, but at the first sign of trouble—”
“I’ll outrun you.”
“Not what I expected to hear you say,” Marietta said, “but then again, you could’ve said something worse.”
“We’re not going to run into trouble, because you’re going to keep us away from it.” Zinnia pointed to her nose.
Marietta snorted. “Sure will. Isnt it nice of Ellie to put us on this search and rescue mission so we can use this time to catch up? I’m looking forward to spending so much time with you.”
“It’s probably better for us to stay quiet,” Zinnia said. “That way we can listen out for anything sneaking up for us.” And I can avoid getting a headache from you. She lifted the lantern. “Let’s get going. We only have so much time.”
“Yes, your Trotterness.” Marietta bowed. “Show me the way.”
They set off on their journey into the woods.
A/N: Hey all, thanks for bearing with my brief absence. Hopefully most of you come back and vote on this chapter… Voting will close on the 24th at 11:59 PM EST. Chapter 40 will be on December 31st.
We had 23 votes last time. 6 votes for the Sunflower as the messenger choice and 17 votes for Hilda talking to Z and what you read above.
Can you do me a quick favor and vote for Redwood Crossing on Top Web Fiction? It’s extremely helpful! One click does it and you can vote on any other webserials that you wish. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something new and fun to read? If you like time travel and teenage hijinks, give this one a try.