Two knuckles rapped on the door frame.
All eyes in Gaurin’s classroom snapped to the attention of the officer in the doorway. Uniform pressed and clean, he commanded respect as he strode to Gaurin’s desk. His sudden presence had paused their lesson on foreign social practices.
Admittedly, Zinnia played more of an observer’s role than a participant’s. Waiting around for her buyer to show up last night had drained her. He showed up hours late to the pick-up point. Noemi wasn’t happy about that. She said the next time Zinnia shouldn’t bother, but Zinnia didn’t want to act like anything had changed. She needed to appear as desperate as she always was.
The men spoke in hushed voices. None of the students—today a small mixture of farmers, merchants, and other-careered citizens alike—dared to get into conversations of their own. They let their teacher and the police officer. Zinnia suspected that that was more out of an urge to eavesdrop than out of politeness, though.
“Ms. Trotter,” Gaurin said.
Zinnia sat up, her back as straight as a stick. “Yes?”
“I have been sent to retrieve you,” the magistrate said, tone as flat as his profession demanded. “Pack up your things and come with me.” Without waiting for her or giving her a chance to protest, the officer strolled out of the room.
Gaurin flashed her a look of sympathy.
Zinnia glanced around at her classmates. The way everyone looked at her made her itch.
People were going to talk about this. They were going to come up with all sorts of stories about why someone from the Internal Affairs department pulled Zinnia out of class. Could this have waited until afterwards?
No. If the Intendant wanted to further discolor her reputation, this would do it. Waiting wouldn’t have given the Internal Affairs department the chance to add fuel to the fire that was Stockbrunn’s distaste towards her in general. The rumors that would come from this would be unpleasant. Zinnia hoped that whatever she was being whisked away for would be worth the damage.
She placed her things into her bag and headed for the doorway. On her way down the aisle, Henrik gave her arm a poke. He mouthed the words “good luck” to her. Zinnia appreciated the gesture.
When she exited, the magistrate was waiting for her in the hallway. He said nothing as he led her outside of the building. Zinnia kept her head up and held high, her hand gripping the strap of her satchel.
Zinnia concentrated on staying calm. Worrying wasn’t going to get her anywhere except for a trip to the heart specialist. Still, her nerves were fragile. Thoughts about why the Intendant wanted to see her came pouring in.
Intendant Navarrete could have found something out about Noemi and the rest. She could’ve been calling Zinnia in to be a witness. Because of their arrangement, Zinnia doubted that she’d be arrested as an accomplice. Maybe the Intendant planned on recruiting her as a spy for that, as well.
Her heartbeat kicked up. Zinnia rubbed her arms, and reminde herself that all of this fretting wasn’t good for her health.
When the officer led her in the opposite direction from the station, Zinnia began to breathe easier. He took her to one of Stockbrunn’s gated parks. It was a popular place for children due to its playground equipment. There were wooden obstacles for them to climb, swings for them to play on, and a slide that never failed to give Zinnia a splinter.
At night, the park made for a good place to take a date thanks to the relative seclusion that the tall plants and trees provided. Landscapers ensured its constant beauty. There’d been a running fountain in the center of the park until the town lost the funding to keep its pipeline maintained.
Zinnia hadn’t forgotten the first time Theres, her ex, had taken her to this park. They’d had their second and third kiss together while sitting on the rim of that fountain.
“Sir, can you please tell me why I’m here?” Zinnia ventured a question.
“Go to the swings,” the magistrate said. That was all she got from him.
As soon as Zinnia was within the park’s fences, the officer shut the gate and stood before it like a guard.
Now, she was trapped inside, taken as a prisoner for whatever it was that Intendant Navarrete wanted. Zinnia bit her tongue to keep from asking the magistrate more things that would go unanswered. Was she supposed to be scared, or was this going to be a surprise party to thank her for accepting the deal? The latter couldn’t be true. That’d be beyond silly.
The iron bars that enclosed the park were built high, far taller than her. There were bent spikes at the top to dissaude climbers. It was pointless to entertain the idea of them being escapable. Even if she somehow made it out that way, the magistrate would catch on to her being gone and hunt for her. The whole force would join him on his search. They’d grab Zinnia and make her do whatever it was that they wanted her to do in the park. There was no getting out of this one.
Zinnia followed the flower-lined path to the children’s play area. Normally busy, the park was emptied of people. They’d been cleared out in the advance of whatever was waiting for Zinnia at the swing set. Zinnia didn’t even hear a single bird in the area. It seemed like even they knew to get out.
Every step she took, every crunch of gravel underfoot was amplified in her ears. As she approached, she heard the creaking of metal. The rustle of a chain.
She rounded the corner.
There was a different Navarrete than the one she expected waiting for her.
“Hey.” Ellie stood on the flat metal seat of the swing, her hands holding the chains attached to the bar above. The swing hardly moved, going forward and backwards at the rate of a soft breeze.
Ellie had her hair pulled into a ponytail, kept in place by a white ribbon. Her high-collared dress was strangely formal for the environment, the skirt portion flouncy and long to her ankles. It looked like something that once belonged to her mother.
“You’re not supposed to stand on it like that,” Zinnia said.
“Were you the one that called for me?”
“Did you close down the park?”
“Yeah. Take a seat.”
Zinnia sat on the furthest away swing, six swings apart from Ellie. She kept her feet on the ground. “Is that guy outside your bodyguard?”
“No. I borrowed him for the day,” Ellie said. She jumped off the swing. The landing messed up her skirt. She smoothed it back down. “I didn’t think you’d come here if I asked, so I decided to invoke my heiress privilege.”
“You shut everything down just to get me here? That’s silly. The Chieftess isn’t going to like this,” Zinnia said.
Ellie sat back down onto her swing, this time using it the proper way. Legs down, she stayed planted in place. “Nope, she won’t like it at all. Doesn’t really matter.”
“Okay,” Ellie repeated.
Ellie showed conversational restraint, not saying anything worthwhile back. It wasn’t like her to let a moment pass in silence. She was loud, a babbler about random subjects whenever there was so much as a pause. She was someone who could talk on and on without saying anything, which was why none of this sat well with Zinnia.
Did something happen to Ellie? Was she struggling with the fact that it was on her to apologize? They wouldn’t be in this awkward position if it hadn’t been for Ellie insisting on being stubborn about everything. As childish as it was to call her, Ellie had been a jerk. If Zinnia had shared Ellie’s penchant for swearing, Zinnia would’ve given her a much worse label for her recent actions.
“What do you want?” Zinnia took off her satchel and threw it off to the side. It bounced off the swing set bar.
Just as it wasn’t like Ellie to be quiet, it wasn’t like Zinnia to be rude, but there they were, swapping positions.
Ellie stared straight ahead. “To talk.”
“Well, pulling me out of class like that wasn’t the way to go about doing it. I’ve got enough to deal with. I don’t need you starting up rumors about me getting arrested.”
“I’m not starting any rumors,” she replied. “What was I supposed to do, though, huh? It’s not like you would’ve shown up here after everything that happened. You basically said you don’t want to be my friend anymore.”
“That was you,” Zinnia said.
“Maybe it was, but it was definitely you, too. I’m not the only one who got pissed off.”
“This isn’t helping you get back on my good side.”
“It isn’t? You used to love this place. Me, you, Freesia, Theres, Aigner… We used to play around here all the time. Like, do you remember that time when Freesia pushed me so hard on the swing that I went flying through the air and busted my lip open? I was so afraid of her getting arrested for treason or whatever that I hid in my room and didn’t want to come out.”
“I remember. That was a laugh and a half.”
“Or that time when all of us showed up to the park and we made up a bunch of excuses to get you and Theres alone. We left, one by one with our fake belly aches. Did you know we didn’t even plan that? We just came up with the idea on the spot.”
“I hated you guys for that,” Zinnia said.
“How about now, do you still hate me?” Ellie asked.
“No, of course not. Not about that or anything else. You’re just…so frustrating sometimes. You’re infuriating, but I don’t think I could ever hate you.”
“I don’t get why you couldn’t. You should.”
“I’m not a fan of the word,” Zinnia replied.
“Dislike, then. How about that? Do you dislike me?”
“Ellie, I’m still your friend. I don’t dislike you.”
She finally looked in Zinnia’s direction, her eyes meeting hers. “Why’s that? Is that because that’s what Freesia would’ve wanted?”
Zinnia rubbed the tip of her boot into the dirt.
Ellie laughed, a singular chuckle at her non-answer. “Yeah. Thought so.”
“Perhaps at first,” Zinnia amended. “But that reason’s worn off by now. This isn’t just about Freesia anymore.”
“I got it.”
Something sharp on the chain stabbed Zinnia’s palm. She brought her hand away, glad that the jut in the metal hadn’t broken her skin.
Zinnia tapped her hand where she got prodded. “Are we here to talk about Freesia?”
Even with the park cleared out and its high fences surrounding them, Zinnia couldn’t be fooled into thinking they had privacy. If someone tried hard enough, they could lean on the fences and listen in. They weren’t speaking that loudly, but Zinnia had more than her fair share of reasons to be paranoid when it came to her older sister.
Ellie side-stepped, bringing her swing as close as the chains would allow. Since she was all the way on the opposite end of the swing set with plenty of swings between them, she remained far away.
“No.” Her voice was low, a faint amount of heat to it like a dying candle. “We’re going to talk about me and…her. Shreya. We’re over. Finished. Done. No more. We’re definitely over.”
“Oh.” Zinnia chanced holding the chain again.
“I thought I would cry more but I only cried once. I was great at handling myself.”
“She cried the whole time. That pissed me off like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Who broke up with who?”
Ellie lifted her feet. Her swing went sideways, but fought to straighten itself on its return.
“I don’t know if anyone said we were breaking up. It was just like, this obviously can’t keep going on like this. There’s no more relationship here. So it was sort of a mutual thing.” Ellie stomped a foot down. “Except she was arguing with me the whole time. So I guess it wasn’t mutual. I dunno.”
How strange. Just days ago, Ellie was willing to throw everything away for Shreya. She lost her mind, logic and all, over that girl, and yet one random argument led to them breaking up? What happened?
“So… You broke up with her?” Zinnia asked for clarity.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s over.”
“Why? She was as good as gold to you.”
“Better than that,” Ellie said. “But it turned out that you were sort of right. She was lying to me the whole time.”
“She was Erzyan? What kind of terms did you leave on?”
“Not great ones. And no, she’s not Erzyan.” Ellie reached up to play with the ribbon in her hair. She sighed, thumbing the material. “She’s… Damn… She’s a liar, that’s what she is. I should’ve listened to you. I’m sorry for not believing you.”
Zinnia brought herself back, then kicked off to go into the air for some time to think. Her hair flowed in front of her face as she went backwards.
Ellie shook the chains she leaned on. “I really thought I could trust her. You really think you know someone and then they just—” She rattled the chains harder. “They just go and ruin things. She fucked everything up.”
Zinnia bent her legs to slow down. “What did she do?”
“She wasn’t who she said she was. I’m going to leave it at that.”
“That could mean a lot of things.” Zinnia came to a stop.
“That’s all you’re going to get,” Ellie said. “She’s a liar and it’s over. End of story. Now I’m just like, what do I do now? I don’t think you get it, Zinnia. Me and Shreya had an incredible connection, you know. We were good. Great. Now it’s like, now what?”
“Now you can move on if you want to,” Zinnia said.
“My uncles know a girl, one of Wilhelm’s friends. Maybe I’ll give her a try.”
“That’s not what I meant by moving on.”
“Isn’t that the best way to get over someone?”
“I think the best way for you to do that is to keep yourself for a while.”
“You know what happens when I’m alone for too long,” she replied.
Zinnia tensed her grip on the chains. That was something Zinnia didn’t want a repeat of. After Freesia’s passing, the Ellie that Zinnia had grown up with—bright, cheery, terribly naïve—had been extinguished. The sullen ghost that took her place rolled in on itself.
When it did venture out of its isolated shell, it lashed out at everyone. Zinnia became the final element in Ellie’s group of friends. Zinnia stayed by Ellie’s side, even at the cost of her own relationships with the others.
She knew that she tempted that ghost out of hiding when they put their friendship on break. Ellie had Shreya so Zinnia figured that the worst couldn’t happen. But she lost her, and now, Zinnia saw glimpses of the phantom returning: forced expressions, words missing their vibrant delivery.
Ellie Navarrete was slipping. Being her closest friend meant that Zinnia could pick up on these little cues.
That’s what Intendant Navarrete had hired her for. She was supposed to take advantage of that fact and use it to guide Ellie towards long-term beneficial directions for Stockbrunn. She needed to manipulate her. Accepting the position made her skin crawl, but what else was she supposed to go? It wasn’t like she was going to stop being her friend altogether, and she was sort of helping Ellie to not be under lock and key. This was, as Intendant Navarrete had put it, an enhancement to their friendship.
“You’re not alone. I’m here for you. Why don’t you, Sunflower, and I go for a walk? It could help clear your head.”
“I dropped Sunflower off at Marietta’s.”
“I don’t mean right now,” Zinnia said. “We can go tomorrow. We don’t need to shut down the park to do it.”
“I mean, I dropped her off permanently. I don’t need her anymore,” Ellie said.
The Chieftess had gifted Sunflower to Ellie in the wake of Freesia. Sunflower had helped dissipate Ellie’s fog by giving her something else to focus on. For Ellie to cast Sunflower aside at such a vulnerable moment in her life was alarming to say the least.
And why did she shove her off onto Marietta? Sunflower could have been locked up with the rest of the dogs of the Navarrete Estate. Giving her to Marietta wasn’t necessary at all.
“What do you mean by you don’t need her anymore?”
“I got to thinking about how unhelpful she is. Same with Marietta. So, I cut them both out of my life. Goodbye.” Ellie held onto the chains and took step backwards to wind up for a powerful swing. She stayed standing, the swing drawn back as she witheld the tension.
“But you’re Marietta’s caretaker.”
Marietta might as well rot for all Zinnia cared, but Ellie had never felt that way. Ellie had been insistent that Marietta be looked after. Since no one else cared, that meant that Ellie had to handle her on her own. Ellie liked having Marietta as her responsibility, so why the sudden change?
“She’s an animal,” Ellie said. “She can fend for herself. You always said she could.”
“I said it, but—”
“But nothing. That’s how things are. I don’t want anything to do with them anymore.”
“Does this have anything to do with your breakup?”
Zinnia doubted that. “What exactly happened with you and Shreya? Was it a big fight or…?”
“Who cares? It’s done. I’m getting rid of all the toxic people in my life. She was the first one,” Ellie said. “Since we’re talking, it’s obvious that you’re not one of the bad ones. You’ve always been honest with me.”
Zinnia had the strong feeling that Ellie wasn’t returning that same courtesy. Everything she said only added more questions to the pile. Zinnia also wondered what the toxicity cut-off level was. What made someone more toxic than the others?
If Ellie wanted to find a yes-man that would encourage all of her bad behaviors, she could find that in Marietta. For the longest time, Ellie seemed to embrace having someone in her life like that. Whereas with Zinnia, they were butting heads more often that not, especially lately. Fighting could birth poisons of its own.
One of the side effects of said poison was Zinnia’s doubt in the validity of their friendship. Had Ellie invited her here because she had no one else or because she genuinely wanted her around? Her apology had been scant. It failed to address the majority of the things that led them to the point where they couldn’t sit side-by-side on the swings anymore.
Something else needled at Zinnia. It was entirely possible that Ellie had picked her out because not only was she the only one left available, but also because Ellie was confident that Zinnia wouldn’t give up on her like everyone else had. Zinnia was reliable.
Reliable, and a rat for the government. That’s a winning combination for our friendship.
Had she truly always been honest with Ellie?
Ignoring the work she was supposed to be doing for the Intendant, she mostly had been.
Zinnia’s stomach sunk. “I suppose so.”
“We should get dressed up and meet a bunch of pretty girls. I bet they’ll be fighting to go out with us.” Ellie raised her feet and kicked forward to help the swing’s momentum. “Maybe one of them will be my future wife. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“What? Since when do you like thinking about marriage?”
“Why, Zinnia, marriage is an entirely normal thing for girls our age to think about. I’ve got a future to worry about, you know, and my future’s the town’s future, so it’s especially important for me. I need to find a good girl who’s wife material. Someone who’s long-lasting.”
“Wife material.” Zinnia nearly choked.
“Mmhm. And I’m thinking about going by my full name from now on: Elspeth, not Ellie. What do you think?”
“You hate being called that.”
“It’s more fitting for an heiress. I can’t rule Stockbrunn with a name like Ellie.”
Zinnia was supposed to be talking to Ellie “all about the present moment” Navarrete, not Elspeth “sensitive about the future of Stockbrunn” Navarrete. She wasn’t sure she could get used to Elspeth.
“I like you better as Ellie. Ellie can do anything she puts her mind to,” Zinnia said.
“Ellie’s prone to silly mistakes. I’ve got to get back on the straight and narrow.”
Zinnia the Heiress’ Attendant was rejoicing on the inside. Here Ellie was, whipping herself back into shape without Zinnia having to lift a finger. If Ellie’s new personality stuck, then Zinnia’s job was done in that regard. Ellie was righting her path on her own. Maybe, Zinnia would need to offer some encouragement every now and then, but for the most part it seemed like Ellie was performing as she should.
Stockbrunn would get the Chieftess-to-be that it begged for, Zinnia would be rewarded with a scholarship, and the Trotters’ name would be restored. Everything would work out well for everyone who wasn’t Ellie—the real Ellie, not the Elspeth Ellie.
And it was the state of the real Ellie that gave Zinnia the supposed best friend no reason to celebrate.
It hurt to watch Ellie swing so carefreely.
“It’s okay to make mistakes,” Zinnia said, “as long as you’re learning from them.” She wished she knew what to say to instantly fix what was going on with Ellie, but with her limited information about the break-up that was going to be impossible.
“I know. I’ve learned big time, trust me. No more mistakes for me.”
What in Casterne had Shreya done to her?
“I’m sorry for asking this, but…did Shreya cheat on you? Is that what she lied about?”
Something like that could have gutted Ellie to her core.
Ellie skidded her boots in the dirt to slow her descent. The rough sound grated on Zinnia’s ears.
“Zinnia, do I look like I want to hear Shreya’s name right now?” Ellie smiled. “Do me a favor and never bring her up to me.”
“That’s a mistake you won’t make again, I’m sure. Now!” Ellie stood up from her swing. She snapped both of her fingers. “We should go shopping. We’ve got girls to meet tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Don’t you need time to make the proper arrangements?” Then again, Ellie had the power to shut down an entire park for a private conversation. It wouldn’t be unfathomable for her to gather a bunch of girls wherever she wanted them with her cousin’s help.
“Don’t you worry about that. C’mon. It’ll be a party. Time’s a-wasting! We’ve got to pick out stationery for the invitations, get clothes, grab a venue—”
“W-wait, that’s a lot.”
“We can do it. Get off that swing. We’ve got shit to take care of,” Ellie said.
Maybe Ellie needed to get this out of her system, and then she would go back to normal. This may have been a temporary symptom from getting her heart broken. Zinnia just needed to watch over her and make sure Ellie didn’t get any worse.
Was the root cause of this worth an investigation, or was she better off letting things work out on their own? Zinnia pondered that as she grabbed her bag.
A/N: Cool, we got to see the result of two votes here. There was the vote on whether or not Zinnia would accept Catalina’s offer. That happened January 21st. 20 votes, 10 for yes, and 10 for no. Yes won the coin flip.
We also got to see the results from one of our Chapter 27 polls – “will Ellie talk to Zinnia about Shreya?” 28 voters. 10 for “yes w/ her telling Zinnia about Shreya’s identity,” 17 for “yes w/ her not telling Zinnia about Shreya’s identity,” and 1 vote for “no, she spends time with Wilhelm instead.”
This poll will be open until Friday, March 24th at 11:59 PM EST.
Chapter 49 on March 29th!