Zinnia Trotter waited a good hour or so before heading into the night.
At the time she’d been walked home (alongside a complaining Ellie), officers were running up and down her street to corral people back into their homes. They didn’t officially call it a curfew, but they might as well have.
Her siblings were sleeping. Fortunately, they’d missed the fervor of excitement, so they were easy for her to wrangle. Her mother was in the rocking chair she rarely moved from, and her father had yet to come home.
Zinnia expected him to use the emergency as an excuse not to return. All he’d have to do is pretend that an officer advised him to stay wherever he was. Recently, it seemed like he was trying less and less to hide his infidelity, what with his ridiculous tardiness, sloppy appearance, and widening distance from his wife.
While it was true that Ianthe Trotter wasn’t the person she used to be, that didn’t mean Vervain had permission to spit on her ghost. Worse yet, he was spitting all over the living, as well. He had children to think of, children that Zinnia was practically raising singlehandedly at this point. Luckily, the kids hadn’t caught onto what their father was doing. Maybe he’d leave once they were old enough to.
As much as it hurt her to admit, the Trotter household still needed him. Without his monetary contributions, they wouldn’t make it. They needed to be a united front in that regard, and at the very least, he wasn’t a drain on their already strained finances. Someone else was feeding him and keeping him well. As long as he still did his part for his family, she supposed she could overlook the problems.
Zinnia had yet to approach Intendant Navarrete about her payments. Every time she thought about it, anxiety coiled like a snake within her stomach. It may have been a coward’s wish, but she hoped that the Intendant of Internal Affairs would be the first one to contact her about it. They hadn’t checked in with one another beyond a brief (and awkward) wave the other day. Zinnia imagined that the Intendant was waiting for her to collect a significant amount of data on Ellie, then she’d pay her for her time.
The whole “Ellie’s keeper” thing still didn’t sit well with her. But she couldn’t deny that being paid for something she was already doing felt kind of nice. And look at the good work she was doing so far. Ellie was mostly back to normal. The swings in her mood were a tad worrying, yes, but Ellie herself had assured Zinnia that she was fine. Things were being patched up between her and Shreya. Improvements were being made all around.
Shreya.. It was honestly hard for Zinnia not to let her curiousity get the better of her. Back when she went to the cabin, she’d found Shreya and Ellie’s shared diary lying around. Marietta had recommended her to read it, to solve the mystery of who Shreya might be, but Zinnia couldn’t do it. She picked it up, paced around while contemplating the seriousness of breaching their privacy, and then set it back down, uncracked. She hoped she hadn’t given up her only opportunity to unlock the mystery of who Shreya was.
She pulled the hood of her coat over her head. Zinnia donned her usual attire for venturing into Arntzen: well-worn clothing, a subtle messiness to her hair, a tired and aloof expression, and a weariness she didn’t have to fake. Not that everyone in that area was downtrodden and incredibly tired, but she needed to blend in by fitting the stereotype.
Part of her considered doing this the next day instead of so late at night. That would’ve been the safer decision. Not to mention, the less hypocritical one after she forbid Ellie from chasing any of the protesters down. Here she was, performing a chase of her own all on her lonesome. She just had to know about a particular protester among the crowd.
Did Noemi have anything to do with what was happening? Had she orchestrated the downfall of their group? That hardly made any sense, unless this was to set the stage for something else. The fire and violence made them look less like concerned citizens calling for change and more like despicable criminals. …Which wasn’t far off, considering some of their side occupations, but those were crimes of a different kind.
Zinnia took a sharp left, turning down an alley to avoid running into any officers. Sneaking around wasn’t anything new to her. Zinnia never took a direct path into what the locals lovingly called Rat’s End (or Arse End, as Elie would say). Taking the most straightforward path to Arntzen would open her up to too many questions, especially on a night like this where everyone’s awareness was heightened. People were supposed to stay where they belonged.
Already well-practiced at slinking around, it was simple for Zinnia to make it to Gracja’s house undetected, save for one incident. An officer barked at her to get to her house, and to that she mumbled that she was working on it. Admittedly, she said it so quietly that he didn’t acknowledge what she said, but, still. She tried.
Once she reached Gracja’s door, she knocked a specific, agreed-upon rhythm. She had to repeat it twice before anyone answered. Zinnia had to step back to avoid getting hit when the door swung open. Having a slight height advantage, Lucio peered down at her, then looked around behind her like he was expecting someone to be following her. This level of back and forth scrutiny wasn’t part of his normal behavior.
“Did you hear about what happened near the Town Hall?” she asked.
“Just get’n,” Lucio grunted. He shut the door as soon as she was inside.
Zinnia ignored his gruffness, playing innocent to it. “Have you seen Noemi?”
“Do you have somethin’ to tell her?” Lucio asked. “Anythin’ you’ve been keepin’ from her, me, or Gracja?” His shirt was stained at the pits, something made obvious by the way he placed his hands on his hips.
“If this is a bad time…”
“No, this is a great time. We’ve got some things to work out. Noemi’s down in the basement, making sure our supplies are alright. Noemi!” he called. “Guess who’s here to see you? You can wait in the living room for her.”
Zinnia narrowly missed tripping over a crack in the floorboard on her way down the hallway.
The living room hadn’t changed much from what she remembered. The place was in need of some uplifting, or new wallpaper. A set of Noemi’s paintings—a golden dog ear, a pair of lips in the palm of a hand, and a row of sabers sticking out of filthy water—leaned against the far wall.
Lucio peeked his head into the room. “I’ll go get her. She might not’ve heard me.”
“Okay,” Zinnia said. She chose not to sit on the floor or the couch, instead remaining standing as she checked out cracks in the ceiling to pass the time. She allowed herself to breathe a small sigh of (hopeful) relief.
If Noemi was in there basement, then it was doubtful she had any involvement in whatever was going on with the arsonists. Had she been part of it, she would’ve stayed at a safe house of some sort. She wouldn’t have wanted to drag any police suspicion to Gracja’s home.
“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting for too long,” Noemi said as she walked in. Neither Lucio nor Gracja were with her. They were probably tending to the supplies. Whatever she’d been dabbling in down in the basement had stained her fingers black to the knuckle. “Why don’t you take a seat? You may be here for a while.”
“I’m just stopping by,” Zinnia said, roughing her hand through her ponytail.
“I’m surprised you came right to me. I was going to look for you tomorrow. It serms like we have quite the situation on our hands, don’t we?” Noemi plopped down on the beat-up couch. “Gracja should really see about getting this repaired. I feel every coil.”
“So…you know about what happened at the Town Hall? I saw them throw the bottles. It was actually pretty terrifying.”
“Wasn’t that a happy coincidence, you being there?” Noemi asked. She stretched her arms, lounging out.
“I was with Ellie. She saw a bunch of officers running towards the Town Hall and wanted to follow them. It wasn’t like we randomly stumbled upon the scene out of the blue,” Zinnia explained. She did her best to keep her hands still. Fidgeting while under Noemi’s watchful gaze wouldn’t help her right now.
“Zinnia, I’m going to need you to be honest with me. We tell each other everything, don’t we?”
“A lot of things.”
“Right. I know things about you that your friends don’t know, which is why I’m hoping you’ll continue being honest with me.”
“What do you want to know?” Zinnia swallowed thickly.
“You know how security at our meetings is an extremely important thing? We make sure to vet everyone, and then we insist on masks on top of everything else. I’m the only one who knows who everyone is. There’s a secret coin. Shifting locations. A lot, a lot went into making sure no one could infiltrate the group. We were secure.”
“I haven’t been to any meetings in a while. Things have gotten busy, sorry.” Was that what Noemi was getting angry about? Did she think that her loyalty to the cause was wavering?
“You haven’t been doing a lot of things lately. No visits, no more running when I ask you to. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that you turned over a new leaf, but we both know that’s not the case. That’s not the full story, is it, Z?”
“Did I do something wrong…?”
“Did you tell anyone about our meetings?”
“No,” Zinna was quick to say. “I kept everything a secret.”
“Even to Ellie?”
“Especially to Ellie.”
“It never crossed your mind to float some of our ideas by her? She is, after all, the heiress. She could help us. Don’t you think that would have been a good idea, talking to her about some of the things we were hoping to achieve? I might have done it if I was you.”
“But I didn’t, I swear,” Zinnia said.
“I won’t be angry if you did.”
“I know, but, I really, really didn’t tell her or anyone else anything. What makes you think that I did?”
“Those protesters you saw? They weren’t real. They weren’t us. Obviously. Someone learned about what we were doing, created a sham copy group, and then screwed everything up. Somebody infiltrated us. You know what? Somebody must have leaked everything. None of us organized a protest for today. We’re not ready for that!”
“M-maybe it was some rival group with similar intentions,” Zinnia said. “We could be safe.”
“We’re ruined before we had the chance to start.”
Zinnia took a moment to think. “I have an idea. What if you come forward, say you were inspired by some of the things those protesters said, and try to rally people that way? You could become the non-violent alternative. There’s ways to salvage this.”
“Having any association with them right now, even if it’s just sharing their sentiments, is a bad idea. And someone set this all up knowing that it’d undermine our efforts. I bet someone went undercover.”
“It wasn’t me.”
Noemi laughed. “I sure hope not. I’m going down my list of suspects. I’ll figure out who’s responsible for this, and they’re not going to like what happens.” She leaned forward. “People sometimes just disappear from this town, don’t they? They vanish. You read the papers. No one lifts a finger about any of the missing people, and it all gets swept under the rug. I wonder why.”
“Are you trying to say you have something to do with that?” It had been quite a while ago, but she remembered reading something about a mother and daughter pair who ran off.
“Of course not. I was making an observation. My methods are different. Just like how I’d never throw a flaming bottle of oil at the Town Hall. That’s not something I’d ever do. Who the hell thought that’d be a good idea? Those weren’t real protesters, Z. They were making us look bad on purpose. And, and, you know what else? Since when did we all wear the exact same mask? It’s like they barely tried!”
“Who else is on your list?”
“The only person you should be concerned with on my list of suspects is you. I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Try not to make any suspicious trips anywhere. I’d stay out of the woods if I were you.”
“Have you been following me?” Zinnia took a step back.
“Not that far, no. I needed to make sure you were alright, so I had some eyes on you. Just make sure you’re doing everything that you’re supposed to be doing and nothing else. You have enough dirt to deal with.”
“But I do want you to do something for me. I’d like a meeting with the heiress. Arrange something for us.”
“She might be busy.”
“Going into the woods on an errand? It’s interesting how our heiress spends her time, isn’t it? I heard about that party, by the way. It was all the girls around here could talk about. Next time, see about inviting some Arntzen girls, alright? They don’t get enough love.”
“Can I ask what you need to talk to Ellie about?”
“That’s for us to know. Now, you should be getting home. There’s a curfew going on. Need me to walk you back? ”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Make sure you talk to Ellie about meeting up with me. It’d be sad if you forgot to.”
Something about the look in Noemi’s eyes made Zinnia’s stomach flip. What in Casterne could she possibly want to say to Ellie privately? Did she have some dirt on her that Zinnia didn’t know about? And…how did Zinnia manage to miss someone stalking her?
Whatever she wants to talk about, it can’t be good. She wants something from her.
But if I don’t bring her to her, what might happen to me?
I could get Intendant Navarrete involved…maybe with an anonymous tip, but I don’t want to ruin Lucio and Gracja’s lives. I don’t even want to ruin Noemi’s. I just want to protect myself if I have to.
What am I supposed to do?
A/N: Don’t worry, Z. Our lovely voters will tell you what to do. Voting ends this Sunday, October 1st at 11:59 PM EST.
We had 12 voters last week. 11 said for Zinnia to go find and talk to Noemi now, and 1 said to talk to her tomorrow and get a Florence run-in.
Chapter 62 will be up on Tuesday, October 3rd. I’m happy that spooky season is creeping up on us. Time to plan out some horror movie marathons. See you next week!