They were immediately seized upon arrival to Stockbrunn’s front gate.
Marietta had already left, having taken the path on the forked road that would lead to her home on the outskirts. That meant she got to miss out on the looks of the faces of the two women who waited for Ellie and Zinnia’s return.
Since they were experts at schooling their faces into absolute unreadability, Ellie didn’t know what to make of Hildegarde and Catalina’s expressions. Cold, guarded eyes scanned over the girls for marks, signs of bruising, and whatever hints of what had transpired through the night they could glimpse on their persons.
The Chieftess and the Intendant of Internal Affairs stood battle ready. They were dressed in uniform reminiscent of military soldiers, clothing Ellie hadn’t seen except for in portraits, illustrations, and the occasional parade march. Honorable medals adorned the spaces close to their lapels. Their jackets were buttoned up to the highest point. At their hips hung a pairing of one long sword and one short sword, both menacingly sharp.
Ellie pulled herself free of Hildegarde’s hand on her arm. As if resigned to her fate, Zinnia didn’t attempt to break away from Catalina’s grasp around her elbow. She kept her eyes on the dirt floor. Catalina had handcuffs attached to her belt loop. Their metal surfaces glimmered in the limited light cast by the moon.
“Let go of her,” Ellie said. “She didn’t do anything wrong.”
“It’s okay, I had a feeling something like this would happen.”
“What’s the charge? You can’t arrest her for no reason. That’s an abuse of your position. I order you to leave her alone and let her go home.”
It was rare of Ellie to flex her hierarchical power over her aunt, but this situation more than warranted it. She couldn’t stand aside and let her take Zinnia away on unknown grounds. She briefly wondered, though, if this had something to do with how the scenario was able to conduct the search on her own, but Ellie dismissed that. Regardless of what Zinnia did, Ellie would fight for her.
“She will do no such thing.” The pointedness of her mother’s tone caused Ellie to stand up straighter. By the crispness of it, Ellie knew should be in for a long night. Hildegarde looked down on her far shorter daughter, peering through her thick eyelashes. “You would be wise to follow Ms. Trotter’s lead here.”
Ellie glanced at her friend, at the slump of her shoulders and refusal to make eye contact. She seemed worn down. The events of the night appeared to have stripped her of her energy. Her appearance was only made worse the presence of the two formidable women who ruled over her in status and title. Acquiescence and defeat.
“Sunflower, heel,” Hildegarde said.
Sunflower, who had been pacing around the group with her ears flat and her tail tucked between her legs, halted her movements. She hadn’t been able to wander off thanks to the wrist leash, but if she had the freedom to, Ellie imagined that she would’ve bolted.
Soaking up the heavy atmosphere wasn’t good for her. She was too empathetic for this level of tension, most likely torn between protecting Ellie and listening to who she may have perceived as Ellie’s owner. Ellie didn’t know how the minds of dogs worked or if they were fully aware of family ties. Most likely. That was probably what kept her tame enough to tolerate Shanti.
“Don’t talk to her like that,” Ellie said. “You’re scaring her.”
As if Ellie hadn’t said anything at all, Hildegarde said, “we’re going home. Say goodbye to Ms. Trotter.”
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what you going to do to her.”
“Intendant Navarrete, please take Ms. Trotter away. If she fights back, don’t hesitate to do what you see fit.”
Aunt Catalina nodded. To Zinnia she said, “remain compliant and I won’t be forced to use these on you. You’re a reasonable girl, so stay that way.” She shook the chain of the handcuffs at her belt.
Zinnia wasn’t displaying any signs of lashing out or acting up, so Ellie found the threats terribly unnecessary. Was this an exertion of their dominance, a reminder that they were not to be fooled or trifled with in any manner? Now Ellie really wanted to know what Zinnia had said to her mother.
But they were still in the middle of their weeks-long spat. Their most recent argument had only renewed her resolve in this. It was Zinnia’s hatred that was ruining everything, and her hatred was a reflection of the fierce xenophobia all Stockbrunnians felt to some degree. The girl had stabbed someone, for Stockbrunn’s sake! That wasn’t the normal Zinnia that she knew, that was as a Zinnia consumed by ignorance. What she misconstrued as an attack was probably Shanti fumbling with the Casternian language.
Even despite all that, Ellie took no joy out of seeing her friend, enemy, whatever person getting manhandled.
“You can take your hand off of her,” Ellie said.
“That is fine,” Hildegarde confirmed.
Catalina complied with Ellie’s request. “We shall be off, then. I’ll reconvene with you in the morning.”
“I will be taking the day off. You can inform the others.”
Yeah, Ellie was going to be in for it, all right. And night and a full day of whatever punishments her mother had in store for her. She couldn’t contain her excitement. Not.
Ellie shot Catalina a warning. “If I hear that you hurt her in any way…” The threat died on her lips. There was an all want she could do to Catalina, not when her mother’s rank exceeded hers. So she let the statement linger in the air so Catalina could form her own conclusion.
“Good night, Elspeth.” There was a twitch of a smile on her face. It reverted back into seriousness as fast as Ellie had caught it. “Hildegarde.”
Head down, the very image of a prisoner to be, Zinnia walked alongside Catalina to what Ellie assumed would be the station. As for her jailer, she held out her hand for Sunflower’s wrist leash. Ellie unclipped it and handed it over. Together, three of them walked back to the Navarrete Estate.
Zinnia Trotter lifted her head up from the interrogation table. The austere walls of the room were void of a clock, preventing her from knowing how long she had slept for. Intendant Navarrete had asked her if she wanted a glass of water, and when Zinnia declined, she left to get one for herself.
She remained seated, on the off chance that Intendant Navarrete was testing her. Somehow, the toll of the night’s events waved on her and forced her to doze off without her realizing it.
The door unlocked with a click that startled her into fixing her posture. Intendant Navarrete entered the room, leather boots forcefully hitting the wooden floor as she walked inside. She kicked the door closed for privacy. As early as it was (or late, depending on how you viewed the hour), there were still magistrates working inside of the building.
None would dare interrupt their dark-haired boss. When she led Zinnia down the hallway to this room, her employees had stood up at attention and moved out of her way. Zinnia didn’t look at their faces. She didn’t want to pick up even a hint of what they may have been thinking about Intendant Navarrete hauling a Trotter into the interrogation area. How much scorn would they be hiding?
“I know you said you didn’t want any water, but I got you some anyway. And here’s an apple fritter in case you’re hungry. It’s fresh from the corner café,” Intendant Navarrete said. She sat it down in front of Zinnia, the top side of the fritter drizzled in sugar glaze. Next to it, she placed a full cup of water.
Zinnia hesitated to eat the fritter. “Thank you.”
“Do you need a fork and knife?” Intendant Navarrete asked. She took the seat across from Zinnia’s and raised her glass of water to her lips.
“Do you trust me with a knife?”
“Is there a reason I shouldn’t? You’re not under arrest and as far as I know, you’re not a criminal.”
She breathed a little easier at that. But then again, lulling her under a false sense of security could be a part of Intendant Navarrete’s ploy to weasel information out of her. Zinnia reached for the cup of water Intendant Navarrete left for her and checked it for cloudiness.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but what am I here for, then?” Zinnia asked.
Intendant Navarrete set her glass aside. She scooted back her chair and crossed her long legs one over the other. She smiled in a way that reminded Zinnia of her niece at her most playful. “For conversation.”
“Was this the best place to have one?”
She was probably asking one too many questions, but because she wasn’t getting much information upfront, she felt like she had to keep pushing. Zinnia was very much at Intendant Navarrete’s mercy. The woman had put away her longsword. The short sword stayed with her, in reach for whatever nefarious things she had in mind.
Bite marks lined the edge of the table.
“I wanted to minimize distractions. There is no need to be nervous. Honestly, the Chieftess and I are thankful for what you did tonight.” Intendant Navarrete leaned forward to grab her drink. “You rescued Elspeth and brought her home safe and sound. I imagine that the two of you are close.”
“I suppose we are,” Zinnia said.
“What do you like to do for fun?”
The question took her off guard. “With Ellie?”
“You yourself. What is a typical day for Zinnia Trotter like? Tell me about yourself.”
It was an odd line of questioning and absurdly casual for the room that they were in. Zinnia formulated her response with the level of care she gave towards building swine shelters. Thoughtful blueprints, crafted precision, and utilization of the proper tools. Obviously the other woman had to be rooting around for something.
Zinnia picked at the fritter as she spoke, playing at being relaxed. “I wake up early in the mornings, work on my family’s farm, go home and make breakfast for my brothers and sister. I attend secondary studies. Then I check on the farm or relax until dinner time. It’s a normal life, I think. Average.”
“Average lives are the backbone of this community. Don’t downplay the good work that you do.”
“Thank you. I know our production was better in the past, but we have been working hard to get back to where we once were before.” Before the tragedy known as Trotter’s Slaughter. A disgusting name for a misguided attempt at revolution. Zinnia wondered if Intendant Navarrete would dare bring it up.
“Yes, I believe the Intendant of Agriculture has taken note of that. You’re doing a fine job, all things considered.”
“Zinnia Trotter, can you please inform me as to why there is blood on your hand?”
Zinnia dropped her hand into her lap and out of Intendant Navarrete’s view. “It’s paint.”
Intendant Navarrete clicked her teeth, shaking her head. She got out of her seat. She pushed it in close against the table. She edged around to Zinnia’s side, and leaned in close with her hand on the hilt of her short sword. The handle was wrapped in white and royal blue ribbon.
“Show me your hand,” she said.
Zinnia lifted it up. The Intendant took it into hers. The gentleness as she examined it surprised Zinnia. Once she was finished, she returned to her seat.
“Lying to an officer, and the top ranked officer at that, is never a good thing, Zinnia Trotter. You should be careful not to do it again.” Intendant Navarrete swirled the water in her glass. “I will give you a second chance. Why is there blood on your hand?”
Her mind reeled, looking for something to say. No one had seen Marietta. Maybe she could claim that Marietta trip in Zinnia took the time to dress the wound. But then again, Intendant Navarrete would likely pay Marietta a visit in order to corroborate the story. And there is no use claiming that the blood was hers. She had been checked for cuts it to say the cut came from elsewhere on her body would result in a strip search.
Faster then her brain could come up with a decent excuse, Zinnia said, “it’s embarrassing, actually.”
“I tripped and fell onto an animal carcass. That’s why the glass on my lantern cracked. You can see the crack for yourself. It’s the truth.”
“The woods are a dangerous place. Do you agree with that sentiment, Zinnia?” Intendant Navarrete finished the rest of her water.
Zinnia took some sips of her own, hoping to hide the tremble of her bottom lip. “I do.”
“You agree, which is why I find it strange that the two of you have a secret hideout somewhere in the woods. You seem like a smart girl who leads a relatively normal life, doing what’s expected of you. You take care of your family, you work on your farm, and you’re an academic. Explain for me why a girl such as yourself would willingly risk having a secret hideout in the woods.”
“It’s not exactly my hideout. It’s more of Ellie’s. She uses it to meet and hang out with, with Marietta and I, sometimes. She brings her dog, too.” Zinnia added that last part so Ellie did not sound completely out of her mind with foolishness.
“It is strange for her to do so when there are perfectly good places to meet in Stockbrunn.”
“Marietta isn’t exactly welcome within Stockbrunn’s walls and even I, admittedly, have troubles as well.”
“The next time you face troubles, I’d like to hear about them so they can be rectified. Stockbrunn is your city, too.”
Zinnia preferred not to have magistrate involvement in the issues certain townspeople had with her family name. Nothing good would come of that. She picked at the dried blood under her fingernails.
The other issue she could bring to the Intendant’s attention wasn’t something she could talk about at the moment. The earlier bout of adrenaline had fried her brain and left her fighting a mounting urge to yawn and lay her head back down. Manners (and a side of anxiety, she couldn’t forget about that) prevented her from doing either. She was in no state to articulate the needs of the concerned citizens she fraternized with.
Intendant Navarrete interrupted Zinnia’s thoughts. “Describe the hideout.”
“I don’t understand why you need to know what it looks like. It would be an invasion of Ellie’s privacy for me to describe it,” Zinnia said.
“Oh, yes, you made that perfectly clear to the Chieftess. You cut her right in the heart with whatever you said,” the Intendant replied, “but this is a matter concerning the safety and security of the future of Stockbrunn. This is not a time to be emotional and protective of your friendship.”
Zinnia borrowed bravery from her sister, wherever she was. “Where Ellie’s hideout is and what it is is not as important as why she goes there. You’re asking the wrong question.”
“Well, then. It’s on you to answer the right question. We have an heiress who sees it fit to journey headfirst into danger for reasons unknown. As her closest friend, you are privy as to why.”
“I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to ask Ellie yourself. I’m not a mind reader, and I mean that in the most polite of ways.” That apple fritter was beginning to get cold. Zinnia tore off a piece.
“Do you happen to know why she was there alone tonight?” The Intendant asked.
“I wish I did. I think the reason that she stayed longer than she meant to was because she got sick. I don’t know why she went there in the first place. That’s not normal for her,” Zinnia said.
“Have you noticed anything about her behavior lately that has felt out of the ordinary?”
“We got into a bit of a nasty fight a couple weeks ago. I don’t know if that counts.”
The Intendant breathed in deeply, as if she wanted to in sure it was obvious she was considering her next words carefully. She readjusted the way she was sitting. “I’m asking you this as her aunt, not as my job title. Is there something wrong with Elspeth that you can tell me about? We’re worried about her. Elspeth not coming home… That tore Hilda up.”
The tension in Zinnia’s shoulders tightened. “I can imagine. I’m sorry, but I really can’t tell you what’s going on with her.”
“It will stay confidential.”
Zinnia wasn’t foolish enough to believe that. “All I can say is that she needs help.”
“Enough to warrant an intervention? We are ready to pull the trigger on creating a unit dedicated to her protection.” The Intendant stood up from her chair. “These visits to the woods have gotten out of hand. The Chieftess is hesitant to do what needs to be done, but I am all for giving the Heiress the bodyguards that she needs.”
Watchdogs, in other words. A group of people that would keep a hawk eye on Ellie. Zinnia pictured the fury that would inspire. Her liaisons with the Erzyan spies would come to a crashing halt. Her freedoms would become restricted. She would be expected to play the part of the future leader everyone expected her to be.
Intendant Navarrete said, “the things you are telling me and the things that you refuse to tell me are only solidifying my thoughts.”
“What about asking her what she wants?”
“I don’t trust her decision-making skills. I say that to you in full confidence.”
Intendant Navarrete strode to the far wall. She leaned against it, her arms crossed and she closed her eyes for a moment. Now Zinnia was wishing she actually was a mind reader. Figure it out what the Intendant’s intentions were was proving to be quite the endeavor. They appeared to be getting at the heart of something, but then they would veer off.
“Are you looking for my opinion?” Zinnia asked.
“Share it, if you have one.”
“It’s not a good idea. She will resent you for it. I know her well enough to know that much,” Zinnia said. “As soon as you have to force something on her, it’s a lost cause.”
“It would give us the results that we need. But I see what you’re saying.” Intendant Navarrete walked to the door behind Zinnia’s back. Rather than exit, she lingered. “Are secondary studies a hobby for you or do you have university aspirations?”
The switch in conversational topic jarred Zinnia. She stared ahead, not turning to look at the Intendant. “I considered it, but leaving would be hard on my family. It’s better if I just stay in Stockbrunn.”
“Or you could do it in years from now. You have siblings.”
“Yes, I do, which is why I’m not going anywhere.” They needed her.
“What do you feel hurts you more: money or reputation?”
Without being able to see her, it was like Zinnia was interfacing with the disembodied voice. “Both? That’s hard for me to answer. You’re talking about me personally, correct?”
“I’ve put my feelings out there. I’ve said things to you that I would rather not leave this room. You can do me the honor of letting me the same courtesy. Is it your monetary situation or your reputation that holds you back from what you want?” The Intendant asked.
It’s not like the Intendant was bleeding on the floor with her emotions. She wasn’t putting Zinnia up to an equal trade.
“Reputation,” Zinnia answered. The remains of the fritter blurred in her vision. She wiped her eyes in confusion.
“There are many normal girls and boys who feel burdened by their family names. Reputation. Respect. Power. They trick themselves into believing that they can get those things in unsavory parts of Stockbrunn. I would hate for someone like you, someone whose last name has been ruined to drift into an underground world she doesn’t belong in.”
“I’m not that kind of person.”
“I hope you stay that way. There are bad people out there waiting to take advantage of people like you. But it is a good thing that you are smarter than that, which is why I implore you to consider my offer. It is something that would benefit all parties involved.”
The hairs on Zinnia’s arms bristled. “What offer?”
“It is something that will solve your problems with your reputation. You’ll receive payments for it, too. That’ll solve another issue for you. You may even get a scholarship from the Chieftess herself for your service,” Intendant Navarrete said.
So that was what this was all about. Some type of an arrangement.
Intendant Navarrete continued, “we are working on the title, but we are considering making you into something of an attendant to the Heiress.”
“You wouldn’t be her personal servant, no, it’s nothing like that. You’re the only one that she trusts it would allow to get close to her. I agree with your assessment that a crowd of bodyguards wouldn’t work for her. And she would be distrustful of anyone else we could hire. You’re the most fitting choice.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense. I can’t be Ellie’s bodyguard. I’m a farmer. If something bad happened to her, I wouldn’t know what to do. I don’t even have medical training. I’m just a farmer.”
“A farmer with the strongest tie to an heiress who’s borderline unreachable by anyone else in this town. That puts you in a powerful position. Think about it, Zinnia Trotter. You don’t have to rest on normalcy.” Intendant Navarrete walked closer to Zinnia. She placed her hands on her shoulders. “Your service will be rewarded.”
“What is it that you want me to do exactly?” Zinnia’s mind swirled with the possibilities.
“You’ll be expected to watch over Elspeth and help her stay out of trouble. You will report back to us about any strange shifts in her mood or behavior. While you wouldn’t exactly be a bodyguard in those terms, you would be something similar to a mind guard. A subtle advisor that will steer her in the right direction.”
“That… I’m not sure I can do that,” Zinnia said.
“You did a fine job of bringing her home in one piece, from the looks of it. You can do it. You can give her the guidance that she needs. Think of it as an upgrade to your current friendship,” Intendant Navarrete said.
“But you would be paying me to spy on her.”
Intendant Navarrete laughed. “No, not at all.” Her tone sobered up. “You would be receiving compensation in return for your service to Stockbrunn. To call it spying would be a misnomer. Do as you normally do with the expectation that we will be checking in on you.”
“What if I refuse?”
She squeezed her shoulders. “You will continue to live your normal life. Everything will go on as it has. You will give up your opportunity to change your lot in life. You can imagine the other repercussions for this. We talked about them before.”
Accepting the offer came with a wealth of perks. There were definite drawbacks, however. Everything had been so vague. As much as Intendant Navarrete wanted to dress it up as something other than espionage, that was precisely what this job would require of her. Zinnia would have to be her watchdog. What would this do to their fragile friendship?
And agreeing to do this would put her under the thumb of the Chieftess for perhaps the rest of her life. But saying no might lead to worse things for Ellie. Good things for Stockbrunn and its heiress, but bad things for her as a person.
Having a badge and being her official attendant… Would Ellie even want to listen to her? Their trust factor may become eroded because of this.
“Would Ellie know about this?” Zinnia asked.
“Judging by the fact that she embarked on an impromptu overnight trip, I’m thinking that this is a volatile time for her. Your position, should you accept it, would be kept under wraps.” Intendant Navarrete lifted her hands off Zinnia.
Zinnia rolled her shoulders, glad to be free.
“It’s an important job,” the Intendant continued to say. “I urge you to think the offer over.”
The good and the bad of it, she had been thinking of them the entire time. Could she handle being Ellie’s keeper? Should any harm come to her (and it often seemed to find her), it would be on Zinnia’s head. With good things be attributed to her? Was the government going to use Zinnia as a mouthpiece, as a way to get to their headstrong heiress?
They had to be desperate to be getting Zinnia involved.
“I’d like to, to think it over.” Zinnia folded her hands in her lap.
Intendant Navarrete went back to her seat on the other side of the table. “You can take as much time to think as you want, but you are not leaving until I have an answer. I’m under strict orders from the Chieftess; you must understand.”
“Of course,” Zinnia said.
The pressure stayed on her. As much time to think as she wanted in this room was far more oppressive than liberating. It was an illusion of freedom. The light from the wall sconces colored the room a sickly yellow that only served to spin her head further.
What would her decision be?
A/N: I dictated my throat raw working on this chapter. There are probably some mistakes that I missed. I am working on getting used to it. Hopefully my writing style hasn’t been too affected! It looks like I have nerve damage in my wrist so I will have to voice chapters from here on out. Fun.
20 votes for the question shown in this chapter. Who will the interrogation be about? 5 votes for Noemi and 15 votes for Ellie.
Thank you for reading.
The vote will end January 24th at 11:59 PM EST. Please vote on Top Webfiction. My health and schedule have made it so I can’t advertise RWC as much as I used to. Your TWF votes are helpful.