Although things between them were far from perfect, Ellie Navarette took comfort in the direction they were headed. She and Shreya weren’t doomed. As long as she could trust Shreya’s earnest blues, Ellie could still fix everything. It’d take plenty of work, but she was ready for it.
Yeah, we always knew this would be difficult. We’re just going back to square one and upping the difficulty level some more, Ellie thought. Her steps slowed, causing her to trail behind Zinnia and Marietta on their walk back to Stockbrunn. Sunflower stayed near her, taking any and all opportunities to not-so-subtly brush against her arm. Her dog’s whining was only placated by brief hand holding, her excitement preventing her from being restrained for longer than that.
Ellie had ground to make up with her friends, that much was clear. Zinnia, in particular, had gotten the brunt of her piss-poor attitude. If angels were real, then Zinnia must have been one of them. Who else but a divine being could put up with that much ick?
I mean, she did lose her temper at one point, but she came back and arranged all of this. Without her getting involved, I never would’ve spoken to Shreya again. Why…
“Why did you bother?”
The Trotter duo (Zinnia would die if she ever knew about Ellie referring to them that way) stopped walking to turn around. Marietta narrowed her eyes, clicked her tongue, and acted the very image of “done.” Zinnia, on the other hand, scrunched up her face.
“I thought you said everything went well?” she asked.
Ellie had spared the group the finer details. She told them that she and Shreya were back together for a second go. “Better than well. It was splendid, but…I guess I don’t get why you cared. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy, truly happier than I’ve been in, like, a month, but…”
“Mind if I jump in on this one?” Marietta asked. Zinnia gestured for her to go ahead. “Because this girl cares about you like nothing else. She even dragged me into this, and you know how she feels about me. How about instead of questioning her, you appreciate what she did for you?”
“Wow, thank you, Marietta,” Zinnia said. “I never would have expected hearing something like that from you.”
“I do appreciate what she did for me.” Ellie huffed out an indignant breath. Since when were Marietta and Zinnia on good enough terms for Marietta to defend her like that? A lot must have happened while Ellie was trapped in her blue period. “She just keeps giving me a million chances and I don’t know why. It’s a mystery. Am I really worth all of that, or what?”
“Oh, I get it.” A smirk appeared on Marietta’s face. “You’re scared about this chance that Shreya’s giving you. Maybe Zinnia could give you her opinion on it if you fill her in on what led to your break up in the first place.”
“No. You and me are going to talk about it later,” Ellie said, glowering. Namely, why you didn’t warn me about her. What did you gain from her lie?
Zinnia frowned. “While I won’t push you to tell me anything, I’ll just remind you that I won’t judge you for it. I have my suspicions on what it could be, though.”
“For the last time, she’s not an Erzyan spy.”
“I don’t think you would’ve been this crushed if she was,” Zinnia said. “I’m not going to prod, except for one thing.”
“Don’t force yourself to be happy. Just because she was what made you happy before doesn’t mean that she’s the only answer for your happiness. You can exist and be Ellie without her. I only brought you together thinking that having closure would help you. I didn’t predict that this would happen, so do your best and be careful this time around.”
“You’re making it sound like I’m dependent on her or something,” Ellie said. Her laugh came out more forced and nervous-sounding than she would’ve liked.
Sunflower pulled Ellie into a sudden hug. “I love you!” Her ears dropped, her tail swishing rapidly.
“Sunflower, girl, down. You’re embarassing me.”
“She missed you a lot,” Marietta said. “Could you do me a favor and buy her a better outfit? This burlap whatever-it-is is unbeknownst to her.”
“Unbecoming,” Zinnia corrected.
“I worked hard to keep her looking good, you know. That can be your thanks to me for helping her,” she said.
Imagining Marietta doing anything for Sunflower threw Ellie for a loop. That was the same pig who complained all the time about Sunflower’s filthiness. She barely seemed to tolerate her presence at her house. It wasn’t like Ellie purposefully dumped Sunflower on Marietta to spite her. She did it because she’d lumped them in the same “liar” category—Marietta for unknown reasons, and Sunflower for being (and this word made her cringe) defective.
Her mother had warned her numerous times about training Sunflower. Companion dogs weren’t the norm in Stockbrunn. Dogs were meant to be working animals, as guards or shepherds usually. Sunflower was an exception to that, barely functioning in the role she was meant for. As loathe as Ellie was to admit it, she was a living, breathing stuffed animal.
But if she hadn’t had Sunflower after Freesia’s disappearance, then there was a good chance that Ellie would’ve disappeared, too. Did that make her selfish? Tainting creatures for her gain? Falling in the same trap, time and time again? And, now, what you’re getting into with Shreya…isn’t this going to ruin her?
No, no, no. She’s not an animal animal. She’s different from Sunflower and Marietta.
“Okay,” Ellie said. “I’ll see what I can do about her clothes.”
“I have some recommendations. I’ll tell you all about them on our way back home,” Marietta said.
* * *
Stockbrunn was shades brighter when Ellie returned to it. It was as if her run-in with Shreya had refreshed her viewpoint on everything. Where had her drab town run off to? The cobblestone-paved pathways shone. Buildings looked scrubbed clean. Glass windows reflected like mirrors, revealing better versions of the people who peered inside.
They’d parted from Marietta, their group going down to three. Ellie planned on talking to her later on, on another day when the sky was less brilliant. She didn’t want to spoil anything about this moment. It took a lot out of her to not grab Zinnia’s hand and go running down the streets. Oh, what a potential scandal that would be.
She had to stuff down the majority of her feelings, but that didn’t keep the sun-bright smile off of her face. Ellie burst from the stuffy coccoon that was her Elspeth personality, all fluttery and radiant. She made sure to say hello to everyone that they past by, from the horrid-smelling beggar to the mother carting her child around in a wagon.
“Well, aren’t you brimming with excitement?” Zinnia smiled.
“Of course I am! I feel like I’m finally back. It’s the power of a woman’s kiss,” she giggled.
Zinnia rolled her eyes. “Tell me if you’re ever feeling a little too excited. High and low mood whiplash like that isn’t particularly healthy.”
“Hey, you wanted me happy. Would you rather I be sad?”
“Sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said that out loud. I’m just keeping an eye on how you’re feeling, as a friend.”
Something about the way she tacked on that last part didn’t sit well with Ellie. Not that she suspected anything beyond friendshippy feelings from Zinnia…ugh, that would be too strange, considering Freesia and all of that. Shreya, too. What ill timing of something totally and completely and utterly impossible. They would never!
“I’m grateful for what you’re doing, friend, but you don’t have to be my keeper,” Ellie said. Then, she thought more about what she said, and amended her statement. “Okay, I guess everything that recently happened means you sort of do, but…I’m gonna get better, I promise. I don’t want you to have to worry so much about me.”
“I can’t help it. It’s in my nature to worry.”
“I’ll work on making you worry less, and you’ll work on, I don’t know, did any of those girls at the party catch your fancy?” Ellie asked. “I can help set you up with someone. Although, if you want one of Wilhelm’s friends, you can forget it. Those girls are stuck on themselves.”
“I’d rather not think about that party,” Zinnia said, shuddering at the memory. “It wasn’t that pleasant of a time.”
“Alright, we’ll leave it in the past, then.”
Sunflower leaned down and gently headbutted Ellie’s shoulder for attention. Ellie scratched the back of her head. Her dog made a happy noise in response, her foot tapping the ground.
“What do you think about Sunflower getting real clothes?” Ellie asked, a little apprehensive of Zinnia’s answer.
Zinnia had never approved of things like that. Part of that had to do with raising pigs. Pigs turned everything into a competition. If things in their pen weren’t kept strictly the same, then trouble was soon to start.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “She’s your dog.”
“You’re not going to give me a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t?”
“Sunflower’s never been like the other dogs,” Zinnia said. “I just hope it wouldn’t become a trend in town. We shouldn’t blur the lines that much… I can only imagine what could happen next.”
“There. There’s your reason for why not,” Ellie said. “I needed to hear that. You’re my trusted voice of reason, y’know?”
“For how long, I wonder?” Zinnia smiled.
“I’ll have to get her a new ribbon to start with. She’s got so much hair. I wonder if I should take her to the groomers again.” Ellie fluffed her hand through Sunflower’s hair, eliciting another happy response from her dog.
“She’s cute the way she is right now. As long as her hair’s not getting into her eyes, I don’t see why you’d have to cut it,” Zinnia said. She reached over to feel a handful of Sunflower’s hair.
“Isn’t she so soft and pretty? You should get a dog, too!”
“No, thank you. Bringing a dog to the pig farm is just asking for trouble.”
A thundering of fast-paced running cut Ellie off from her reply. They belonged to a small group of officers, men and women who worked for her aunt. Their uniforms were shoddy-looking, like they had gotten dressed in a hurry. One of them had to clamp his hand to his head to keep his hat from flying off as he ran.
Their sabers swung at their hips. A man shouted at them to watch out. His cry prevented the officers from running over a small child who’d been playing in the road. Ellie gasped, glad to not be in their path. They were so intent on getting to where they needed to be that they probably would’ve barreled her over without a thought—and she was the heiress!
“We should…you should tell everyone to go inside. There’s obviously some kind of emergency happening,” Zinnia said.
“Let’s follow them.”
“Hey, everybody else is doing it.” Sure enough, the curious people that had been on the street around them were walking towards the commotion. “What could go wrong? It’s not like they told us to hide inside.”
Zinnia winced. “This feels like a bad idea. They look like they were running towards the center of town.”
That’d mean something was happening near the Town Hall. The building itself went by several names. Ellie knew it best as a place of boredom, where Elspeth had spent many hours sorting through the archives. Her mother, the Chieftess, and the rest of the Intendants held their meetings there. What harm could possibly befall the Town Hall?
“Everything feels like a bad idea to you.” She gave her a playful swat on the stomach. “Now, let’s creep over and see.”
What they saw the next few blocks over was the last thing she would’ve expected.
A bunch of people in masks (there had to be at least twenty of them) were gathered outside of the building. They were holding up signs, many of them complaining about their council being greedy monsters. One of the signs had the audacity to call out Hildegarde by name and insult.
How dare they?
“Protesters, how pathetic,” Ellie commented. She stayed near the sidewalk with Zinnia and Sunflower, well out of the fray of what was happening. They were somewhat hidden in a thin crowd of on-lookers.
A formidable wall of officers lined the outside of the Town Hall. None of the Intendants had graced the scene with their presence. Ellie figured that that was the best thing to do for their safety, but she had to admit that that was rather unlike her mother. Hildegarde liked addressing situations head-on.
Any moment now, the officers would swat them away like the annoying flies they were. They had no right to complain. Everyone had to deal with hard times. That didn’t mean that they had to throw tantrums like babies. It really was pathetic.
Ellie had half a mind to order the officers to do something about them. At the very least, they could clear the growing audience of people checking out this mess.
“They don’t care that they’re killing us!” a protestor shouted. “Sky high apothecary prices! No proper medical care for real folks!”
“Where is our money going?” a second protestor joined in.
“They pretend like we don’t exist!” a third voice in the crowd screamed. “You can’t ignore us forever!!”
“Don’t they know how foolish they look, screeching at everybody like that?” Ellie asked. “They’re completely exaggerating. I bet you these hooligans were waiting for an excuse to act up.” If they wanted to bring some real grit to their words, they would’ve shown up without masks on. “I wonder how long they’ve been out here.”
“Yeah…” Zinnia mumbled. She stiffened when Ellie placed a hand on her arm.
“You don’t have to be scared,” Ellie said with a small smile. It wasn’t every day that she was the one comforting Zinnia. Zinnia typically had nerves of steel. “Sunflower and me are here. Nothing’s going to happen.”
When she said that, she didn’t think that the protesters would have weapons. She didn’t track who threw it, but she saw the arc of the bottle and the lit rag stuffed down its neck. The fire streamed through the air. It crashed against the Town Hall’s roof, in a shatter of glass and spread of flame.
A second bottle soon followed, hitting the ground before the officers’ feet.
The crowds scattered, people bumping into each other in their desperation to flee. Screams filled Ellie’s ears as yet another bottle was thrown. That one hit the building, too, and its flames somehow fell and caught on an officer and—
“We need to go,” Zinnia pulled her arm.
“My mom’s in there!”
Protesters scrambled to get away. They dropped their nasty signs. The fallen signs became kindling when hopefully the last bottle fell. Ellie wouldn’t put it past them that they had more. What were they thinking? Destroying Stockbrunn wouldn’t get them what they wanted.
She shouted after them, calling them cowards while Zinnia held her back from doing anything rash.
Officers rushed to the well, shouting for buckets from any of the nearby homes. A few of the officers drew their sabers, and chased after the protesters. Ellie doubted they’d be able to catch them at this rate. If the protesters were smart, they’d turn around a corner, rip off their masks, and lose them in the marketplace somewhere.
“Dammit! Sunflower can catch them, let’s go! She can find their scent. The gasoline will make them obvious.” Ellie grabbed Zinnia’s hand.
Zinnia broke free. “No! They’re dangerous. We’ve got to get out of here. Look, look, they’re evacuating the Town Hall now. Your mother’s going to be okay.”
“We should go before my mom sees us. She’s going to go right into panic mode. This is our best chance to figure out who those people are, at least!”
A/N: Ah, I missed writing this in my long, long absence. It’s so nice being able to write something I actually enjoy writing, hehhh. I hope enough of you are still around to justify us continuing onwards. >_< Nice to see you all again, anyway!
This chapter came from a poll back in June 6th about where to start a fire, either in Stockbrunn or the wolf community. 11 voters chose Stockbrunn, while 6 picked the wolves’ home. Looks like it’s burninating time.
Please vote for us on Top Web Fiction. It’ll help more people find us, something we’re really going to need to do if we want to rebuild to our old voting numbers.
And if you’re looking for more interactive serials, I’m going to plug in mathtans work here. There’s even some GL in the latest Epsilon Project, so you have even more of a reason to read it besides the enjoyable and humorous writing. GO READ IT, TEAM, over here!
See you next Tuesday, the 19th. Voting will end on the 17th at 11:59 PM EST so get your votes in before then.