“Aren’t you looking lovely today? You look like you’re ready to make some girl giddy. What’s the occasion?”
Had that compliment come from anyone else, Zinnia would have displayed enough humility to either deny it or thank the compliment giver. Since those words had come from Marietta, however, Zinnia didn’t grant them a response.
Marietta was, after all, someone who loved to get a rise out of her. It was best not to fall for anything that she said. Zinnia didn’t want to leave herself open for Marietta’s likely-to-follow snide remark, or a continued pestering on her home needing to be expanded.
The shack was sized to fit a single animal. From what Zinnia knew of Marietta, she doubted that Marietta would allow Sunflower inside even in the worst of weather. The dog in question was currently lazing about on the grass, looking up at Zinnia with her big, sparkling eyes. They begged for a treat of some kind, and it just so happened that Zinnia had one for her.
Zinnia flipped the cookie over to Sunflower like it was a coin. Sunflower was quick to gobble it up in one bite, cookie crumbs spilling out from the corners of her mouth.
“I don’t get one?” Marietta asked, leaning forward to give Zinnia a maximized view of her displeasure. “Chocolate’s my favorite.”
“I’m not here for that,” Zinnia said.
“You’re here to put in those renovations I asked for, then? Right this way. It’s strange to me why you’d want to work on my house looking so dressed up like that, but you’ve always been a strange one.” Marietta heeled her door open further. They were speaking right outside of the doorway.
“I’m not here for that, either. I’m here to talk about one specific thing.”
“Go on and start talking about it, then.” Marietta flicked the edge of her hair bow.
“I need you to tell me about the last time you saw Ellie. What did she look like? What did she act like?”
Marietta got a twinkle in her eye that Zinnia didn’t quite like. “Ah, so you’re conducting an investigation into the life of Ellie Navarrete, our favorite heiress. Step into my huddled abode. It’s your fault it’s huddled, by the way. I’m still waiting on those changes.”
“Humble, not huddled.” There was definitely enough height to the ceiling that no one had to huddle to get inside. Zinnia hadn’t been that cruel when she’d built her home. “We can talk out here.”
Marietta shrugged, the beginnings of a smile forming on her face. “The last time I saw our dearest Ellie… You know, my memory is quite foggy. I could do with a snack or two. That would clear things right up.”
“The sooner I can get to the bottom of this, the sooner Ellie can go back to being your little helper.”
“Because of her, I’ve got a new little helper right here.” Marietta pointed at Sunflower with the tip of her shoe. “I’d never let that mangy thing into my home, but she makes for a good accessory outside of it. The best part about her is that she knows how to retrieve food. Mind you, it’s terrible food pulled up from someone’s garden and far beneath my palate. I’m enduring.”
“Did Ellie say anything about why she was dropping Sunflower off with you?” Zinnia asked.
Sunflower sat up, wiping the crumbs off her face and then licking them off of her hands. For a long-haired dog that hadn’t had her hair brushed in a while, she was surprisingly clean-looking. Ellie once told her that Sunflower’s hair required daily maintenance. Sunflower obviously couldn’t take care of it herself, so someone must’ve stepped in. Even her clothes seemed all right instead of being stinky and dirt-stained.
Zinnia looked at Marietta questioningly. Was Marietta grooming Sunflower? That was out of the realm of her personality as much as Ellie up and abandoning Marietta and Sunflower. What was next? Would Zinnia start charging into the woods fearlessly and get into a relationship with some unknown wild woman, too? Would she lose all her sense of reason? How about committing an abuse of her power by throwing a random party for no apparent reason at all? Would Zinnia…become Ellie?
Perish the thought.
The party was set to start later that evening, in a few hours. Zinnia had spent the prior day in Ellie’s shadow, following her around everywhere she wanted to go. They went to a dozen different clothing shops, a stationery store to buy paper for the invitations, a calligraphist to write said invitations, and a banquet hall to rent it out for the evening on an appalingly short notice, and—this was the worst part—they went girl hunting. That involved walking into various places, going up to the counter, and slapping down an invitation if the girl was within their age range.
Okay, upon review, that hadn’t been the worst part about it. At least in those cases, Ellie did most of the work. When she was scoping out potential guests on the street, Ellie forced Zinnia to hand those invitations over. She bumbled and mumbled about the Heiress throwing a get-together, and that Ellie would personally love to see whoever-it-was there.
Who would dare turn down an invitation like that? It wasn’t fair. People were setting aside work and chores and other life duties for some random party that came out of nowhere. To refuse the invitation for any reason would be to spit on the Navarrete name. As soon as the card reached her hand, the invited girl was locked into coming.
Then again, based on their squeals and smiles and happiness over Ellie deciding to even talk to them (either directly or through Zinnia by proxy), it wasn’t like they were upset over missing their work hours. It was just unfortunate thinking that they didn’t have a true choice in the matter.
It bristled Zinnia that Ellie would take advantage of her position like that. She had so many people dropping everything that they were doing to service this on-a-whim gathering. The venue owners, the caterers, the guests, everyone who was involved. Zinnia herself (she had to tell Noemi that she’d be busy). It was a headache to think about.
Zinnia was sure that this party would become the talk of Stockbrunn. The banquet hall would likely collect quotes from the party, particularly ones from Ellie, about their quality service. They’d plaster her words on their menu, making sure to point out which plates were her favorite. Everyone who had something to do with the party was going to pull out the stops for this. No one was going to dare let down the heiress in any which way.
Truth be told, Zinnia found herself wanting to play the voice of reason many a time. She thought about “letting her down” and spoiling the fun by investigating the cause of this sudden party. The problem was that Zinnia didn’t know how to approach Ellie about it. Ellie shut down any attempts to bring up Shreya or the fight she had.
The only thing Ellie was focused on was rounding up potential dates. It was a nightmare to reel her back in and gently rremind her that there were only so many seats at the table, and only so many girls that could possibly be violet-hearted. Ellie’s response? She’d hire a bouncer for the door to turn back anyone who wasn’t.
The scandal that would cause! Really, the whole party was a scandal waiting to happen. Zinnia got a headache imagining keeping Ellie out of trouble throughout the whole night. What would Intendant Navarrete do to Zinnia when she caught word of this? Would the whole thing be blamed on her? Zinnia paled at the thought.
“Hello?” Marietta stomped her foot down. “I was talking.”
“Oh, you were? Can you repeat what you said, please? What did Ellie say when she left Sunflower with you?”
“I’m only going to repeat myself because you said please and that, my friend, is rare coming from you. Allow me to set up the scene.” Marietta stepped further away from her house to give herself a bigger stage. “Night had only just begun. I sorting through my collection, as is necessary when you have as many fine fabrics as I do.”
“Just get to the part where Ellie talks to you,” Zinnia said.
“Bang, bang, went the Heiress on my door. She practically punched it down. I hurried out, of course. I asked her what was wrong.”
Marietta tipped up the pitch of her voice and gave it a soft affectation that didn’t quite sound like Ellie but was Ellie enough for the purposes. “‘Take her. I’m done with her!'” Then, in her normal voice, Marietta exclaimed, “‘what do you mean, take her? I don’t want your nasty dog.'”
“So she was angry,” Zinnia said.
“I embellished a bit. She was rather plain about it. Pretty boring for such a dramatic moment.”
“So she wasn’t acting like herself.”
“You can play your guessing games after I’m done with my story,” Marietta said. “Don’t think I let Ellie Navarrete dump her dog on me without putting up a fight. You know me. I wouldn’t let her go without saying something first.” She used her “Ellie” voice to say, “‘take her. I’m done with her and I’m done with you.'”
“Still without much emotion?”
“Very little. I could sense that she’d been through something. The quiet didn’t look good on her. Not only that, but I could smell Shreya all over her. They hadn’t been apart for that long, they’d been with each other that very same day. So I brought up Shreya to her and that got her to crack a little bit. She did that a whole closed-eyes-and-scrunched-up-face thing she does sometimes. I asked her what happened, and, boy, did that get a response.”
Zinnia made a rolling motion with her hands. “And…? What kind of response?”
“She said I knew what happened. I wanted to push back at her, but, mind you, she was holding an axe the whole time. I thought she was going to smash that axe right through my wall,” Marietta said. She frowned at the memory. “And once she’d get done destroying my home, she’d be after me next. She looked like she was out for blood. I wasn’t going to be a part of that so I backed up and closed my door.”
“You didn’t ask her anything about Shreya?”
“Angry Ellie. Axe. Can I make that any more clear?”
“She wasn’t going to kill you.”
“I don’t know. Humans can be rather surprising sometimes. I still can’t get over the fact that you stabbed that woodsdweller.” Marietta tripped over her pronunciation of the last word, sounding like she was saying roadsdweller with a “w not r” speech impediment.
“It slowed her down.”
“If she had properly given chase, we wouldn’t be here anymore. That was a bold move. You think that you’re clever girl, but you need to watch your step. One day, you’re going to make the wrong assumption and—”
“I don’t need a lecture from you, Marietta. I’m only here to talk about Ellie. Why do you think she said what she said to you? What did she mean by you knowing what happened?” Zinnia asked. She felt like she was finally nearing an answer, but she was going to have to a struggle a thousand more times to get it. Marietta could never be direct-to-the-point about anything.
Marietta fluffed up the back of her hair. “Information is a valuable commode, and I have plenty of it. I’m very wealthy.”
Zinnia wanted to say Marietta was wealthy all right, from heaps and piles of something that belonged in a commode, but she held back on saying it. “What information do you have?”
“I wouldn’t want to spoil anything Ellie hasn’t told you. Since you’re here, she must’ve walled you out as badly as she did to me. At least you don’t have to put up with living with that.” Marietta gestured to Sunflower.
Sunflower rolled in the grass. She came to a stop on her stomach, her tail wagging. Zinnia almost felt sorry for her. She may not have had the mental capacity to grasp that Ellie didn’t plan on coming back to get her.
“Ellie hasn’t walled me out. Actually, we’re closer than ever… Kind of. She’s making me throw a party with her,” Zinnia said.
“A party! Why, you don’t strike me as the partying type. If you’re in need of advice, I have plenty to give.”
“You don’t know anything about parties, either. And before I forget, the word’s commodity, not commode. A commode is a toilet.”
“I said commodity. You must’ve misheard me.”
“Right… Is there anything else you can tell me about Ellie?”
“There isn’t much more that I can say,” Marietta said. “I do have a question for you, though. Are you going to try to fix whatever is wrong with them?”
“I’m just gathering information right now, and trying to keep Ellie out of trouble.” Zinnia sighed.
If Ellie had walled off Shreya like she did to the rest of them, then it would be tough for Ellie to go through the healing process. They needed closure. It wasn’t like Zinnia had a complete handle on the situation, though, so she couldn’t go and give presumptive advice like that. Honestly, she still didn’t know what to do.
Shreya was a risk to Ellie, and right now, Ellie was a risk to herself. The question was, who was more dangerous to the heiress?
“I’d like to see them get back together,” Marietta said. “I think it would be amusing to see how that would play out. If you knew what I did, I think you’d agree with me. How far do you think someone would go to change themself for someone else?”
“Who’s the one doing the changing? Ellie or Shreya?”
“They’re both going to have to.”
“Tell me what you mean by that.”
“What happened to the please?” Marietta grinned.
“I don’t know how invested you are in their little tryst, but it won’t continue if they both remain the same. Someone might have to help them.”
“That is the same thing you just said, only rephrased.” Zinnia scratched her arm through her sleeve. “I’m going to get going now. I have to oversee the set-up for the banquet hall. If Ellie comes to you, let me know.” She realized what she’d said and then shook her head. “I mean, I’ll check in with you tomorrow or later tonight. It depends on what happens at the party.”
“It’d take something big to bring them back together. If you want any ideas from me, feel free to stop by, Marietta said. “The information will cost you some of that party food. There’s only so many fruits and vegetables Sunflower can steal from Stockbrunn before people start noticing. You should try keeping us honest.”
“Stealing is bad.”
“So is a lot of things that you’ve done and probably are still doing today. Perspective.”
Zinnia didn’t know how to take that statement. Marietta probably said it to get under her skin. She refused to give her the satisfaction of reacting to it. Instead, she turned and walked away in the direction of town.
She needed time to parse together what little Marietta had given her and see how it would fit in with the information she had from Ellie.
* ~ * ~ *
Floral decorations were strung throughout the banquet hall, criss-crossing at the ceiling and dipping down slightly. A guitar player strummed a simple pattern to provide background music. Servers dressed in all-black walked by with appetizer trays balanced on one hand. Zinnia caught a cloud of perfume from someone who’d gone overboard with the spritzing.
She scanned over the clusters of party guests. They were an odd smattering of girls around her age, each one dressed up as well as she could be given her respective class. It was easy to tell which were the ones Wilhelm brought and which were the ones Ellie plucked from the shops and streets. One group was blasé about the whole affair and the others were constantly preening themselves whenever they passed a mirror.
Zinnia knew that if it weren’t for her connection to Ellie, she wouldn’t be here at all, neither as a been-there-done-that-a-million-times girl or as a try-hard common girl. Not wanting to dwell on that any further, Zinnia went to the tea and juice bar.
Ellie had insisted that they have a wide variety to choose from, including an exotic fruit juice blend that definitely cost more than some of the girls’ entire outfits. Wine hadn’t been an option, which Zinnia didn’t have a problem with. She was surprised that “Elspeth” hadn’t kicked up a fuss about it. She seemed more like a wine than a juice type, but Zinnia refrained from pointing that out.
The server at the drink counter prepared a leafy green tea for her. It had been Zinnia’s insistence that juice wasn’t the only beverage that graced the table. Once her drink was finished, she thanked the bartender, took her teacup, and sipped from it as she went back to surveying the crowd. She counted roughly twenty girls milling about, generally sticking to their own groups.
On the other end of the room was a banquet table with room for everyone. There was an ample amount of floor space for people to stand around and do whatever people did at these kinds of things. Zinnia wasn’t feeling quite so chatty. She had a feeling that at least one of these girls’ families had gotten tangentially burned by what Freesia did years ago. Without Ellie at her arm, Zinnia wouldn’t be anyone’s pick for a conversation partner.
“Hey there,” the only boy at the party said as he reached the bar.
Zinnia wished that Henrik had been able to come, but this was happening during his working hours.
“Hello,” she said back and downed some more of her tea. Zinnia held it in her mouth to take in the flavor.
Wilhelm Lambros-Dietrich was a fine dresser with not a thread out of place on his shirt, waistcoat, and slacks combination. His shoes were pointed and slick, no doubt belonging to an expensive brand Zinnia couldn’t pronounce the name of. His wavy hair was pushed back and away from his forehead. As someone who was part of Ellie’s family tree, he attracted attention wherever he went. Zinnia caught a couple of girls’ eyes lingering in their direction, perhaps waiting their turn to chat with the Heiress’ cousin.
“It’s just like Ellie to throw a party and not show up to it,” Wilhelm said with a smile. He spoke as casually as if he and Zinnia were friends already. At best, they were acquaintances. She mostly knew him as an annoyance to Ellie.
“She said she forgot something,” Zinnia said. She hadn’t appreciated Ellie’s sudden about-turn when people started pouring in at the agreed-upon time, but there was nothing Zinnia could do about that.
“And it’s just like her to throw this kind of party. If I’d know that this was what she was planning, I would have stayed home.” Wilhelm stopped talking to point out he tea he wanted, something that managed to be both bitter and bland. Zinnia would’ve expected him to go for a sweeter blend.
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t pretend not to have noticed. Other than my friends, just about every girl here is a girl to Ellie’s taste. She’s being hilariously transparent with this,” Wilhelm said. “Not that I’m complaining, of course. I think it’s a great thing that she’s getting more social. It’s been a while since she seemed like she’d be in the mood for something like this.”
“Does anything about Ellie seem…off to you?” Zinnia decided to jump right to her investigation. She eyed the bartender behind them, at first worried that their conversation would find its way outside of the party. She then relaxed when she remembered that the service people had been paid to be discreet. If any gossip made it way outside of the venue, it would be the fault of one of the invited guests.
“She was interested in talking to me, which may seem a little off for her, but I think we’ve been building bridges lately. I can’t say I was expecting this many people in attendance. I thought she trusted me with the guest list,” he said. “My friends are back there, pretending to judge everything. They may look uptight, but they’re all funny in their own way.”
“Sorry for keeping you from them.”
“It’s fine. I see them all the time anyway. Do you want me to introduce you to them?”
“I think I’m going to wait here for Ellie. So…she seemed normal to you? She wasn’t out of the ordinary in any way?”
“This party is out of the ordinary for her. I had the impression that she was a little too reclusive for things like this, but, like I said before, I think this is a good thing. Part of her duty is to mingle and be seen. People like that,” Wilhelm said. “Do you see those girls over there? This is going to make their week, their month. Could you imagine being especially invited to an exclusive event thrown by the Heiress? They’re going to have those invitations framed.”
Wilhelm held up his teacup to her. “This is great work. Cheers,” he said.
Zinnia tapped her cup against his. “Cheers. Can you tell me what she was like when she talked to you about this?”
Wilhelm laughed. “You sound like a detective. You’re starting to make me worried.” He took his time to drink from his teacup. “Right, Detective Trotter, I’ll let you know what she was like. She seemed a little exhausted, but basically normal to me. She was as girl-obsessed as she usually is.”
That was one thing about Ellie that Zinnia doubted would ever change, no matter what terrible things might befell Ellie. Having girls on the brain was an unchanging constant about her. Ellie needed to get a new hobby, something that would take up more of her time than lockpicking did.
Zinnia swirled her drink around her cup. If only Wilhelm had known Ellie better, he could be of more help. She wondered if Henrik would have any ideas. She’d have to pay him a visit the next day if Ellie gave her room to breathe.
Wilhelm cleared his throat. “Is there something going on that I should know about?” When other people in his family asked questions like that, it always seemed to be coupled with an underlying threat. That wasn’t the case with Wilhelm.
“No, I don’t think it’s anything that you need to worry about, but thank you.” This was a mystery only Zinnia could solve.
“If something is going on with Ellie, I’d like to know so I can help her.” He started to reach for his hair, but then stopped. Zinnia guessed he’d spent a long time in front of the mirror getting it to look that way and didn’t want to mess it up. “But I respect her privacy. I wouldn’t want you to tell me anything she wouldn’t like me to know.”
That was another welcome difference between Wilhelm Lambros-Dietrich and the rest of his clan.
He asked, “does this have anything to do with the C word?”
Zinnia’s eyes blew open wide. “C word?”
“Concussion,” Wilhelm clarified. “Sorry, I realize that that could’ve gone in many different ways. It’s not something that the commoners know about, but I assume you’ve been informed about it as her confidant. The rest of us know about it. Family. The Intendants and other people of the court. Medical people.”
“Why does everyone know about it? Is that so everyone can keep an eye on her?” Zinnia understood why they’d need a doctor to monitor Ellie, but everyone else felt like overkill.
“It’s not good to take concussions lightly. I don’t think Ellie would like knowing that everyone’s watching her, so I wouldn’t recommend telling her. But do with that information as you will. I can’t take back anything I’ve already told you.” Wilhelm made a sour face as he finished his drink.
“That must mean that everyone knows about this party,” Zinnia said.
“I hope you weren’t trying to keep it a secret. If so, you did a poor job of it,” he replied. “No one’s in trouble for it. I believe everyone’s stance on this is similar to mine. We’re glad that Ellie’s coming back.”
Zinnia set her teacup aside. “It’s a good thing that she has people supporting her.”
“Yes, but what she really needs are more friends like you. Maybe she’ll meet some tonight.”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” Zinnia said.
Wilhelm gave her a shrug and a smile that faintly reminded Zinnia of Ellie. “Do you have any last minute questions for me before I go? My offer still stands, by the way. Feel free to join us. I had fun talking to you and I wouldn’t mind continuing.”
Zinnia let his last sentence go. “Did Ellie ask you to call her Elspeth from now on?”
“She asked me for my opinion on it. I guess that was strange, but not strange enough to ring any alarm bells in my mind.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“There was one thing, though, now that I think about it. She asked me if I knew any girls,” he stopped abruptly to let out a laugh. “She asked me if I knew any girls that looked a particular way. It was like she was shopping through a catalog for a specific kind of girl. She told me that if I had any friends that met that description, they’d need to stay home. I brought a couple girls like that anyway, and it looks like she handpicked plenty herself without realizing it. There’s a definite look Ellie goes for.”
“What was the description?” Zinnia had a feeling as to what it was, but she wanted to hear Wilhelm confirm it.
“Dark hair, blue eyes, and a mid-brown tone. I don’t like to be exclusionary so I decided to fight back with a couple girls that matched that other than the blue eyes.” Wilhelm let out a small laugh. “It looks like she decided to fight against herself, too. I’m starting to think that every girl she picked out is a variation on the theme of her mystery girl. Did Freesia have blue eyes?”
“No. Ellie probably wanted to find someone entirely new.”
“Sorry for bringing up your sister so casually like that. That was rude of me. I forgot my manners,” he said. “I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“It’s fine.” Zinnia searched for an exit. “Are you actually friends with everyone you brought here?” The question came out crispier than she intended.
“Yes, I am. It’s important to get to know people around Stockbrunn. Connections and making introductions and things like that, they’re all important. My fathers have always stressed that to me since I was young,” Wilhelm replied. “As an Intendant’s son, it’s important for me to get to know everyone around town the best that I can. I may not be representing Stockbrunn as intensely as Ellie does, but I’m a reflection of this town, too. How can you serve Stockbrunn if you aren’t in touch with its people?”
“That’s a good point,” Zinnia said. “I should let you get back to them. I’ve held your time for long enough.”
“You can join us. You don’t have to be shy.”
“No, thank you. I’m just going to wait for—”
The double doors to the banquet hall slammed open. In marched two officers from the Internal Affairs department, the ones hired to guard the doors for the night. One of them produced a cornet from behind his back. It shone in the light.
He pressed the brass instrument to his lips and blew a loud note that got everyone to end their conversations. Even the guitarist stopped her strumming, her hand falling away from the strings.
“Presenting Heiress Elspeth Navarrete! “The other officer announced at full volume.
“I have arrived!” Ellie flounced into the room.
If Zinnia had still been holding her teacup, she would’ve dropped it at the sight of Ellie.
Tonight was going to be a disaster.
That was only the beginning of it.
A/N: Two polls! Make sure you vote on them both. The last time we had a vote like this, the numbers were uneven because someone didn’t vote on both, whoops. Polls end Friday the 31st at 11:59 PM EST, but I’m contemplating holding this open through Saturday. We’ll see.
We got to see the results of Chapter 48’s poll in this chapter: “what will Zinnia do?” 31 people voted in total. 28 voted for Zinnia to do some investigating on exactly what happened and 3 voted for Zinnia to stay out of Ellie’s business when it comes to the break-up.
Next chapter on Tuesday, April 4th!