Catalina scraped feathers off of her tongue. Chewing the ends of her quills was a habit she should of kicked years ago, but she never seemed to be able to shake it. The worst part about it were the tinier pieces of feather. She swore that those fluffy, demonic bits were conspiring against her. Why else would she keep coughing up feathers?
A knock at her door offered her a break from her endless paperwork.
“Come in,” she called. Catalina wiped her face to make sure there weren’t any stray feathers around her mouth.
Barney marched inside, coming to a stop a foot from her desk. He was a kid with a good head on his shoulders, right around her niece’s age. His older brother was in line to inherit his family’s orchard. Their trees were waning and the amount of work didn’t require two families to handle it. Rather than be better about it, Barney decided to look for a job elsewhere—one where he could be both Stockbrunn’s protector and servant.
Catalina took a liking to him immediately. His pluckiness reminded her of how her brother Vicente used to be. A real go-getter. Someone who wasn’t vindictive. Open and friendly with a heart of gold who took the time to lend a helping hand to anyone who needed it.
She admitted that she was projecting quite a bit on the last one. Truth be told, she mainly knew Barney as the person he was within his uniform. She knew his incident reports (nothing awful), his overall numbers (decent enough considering his age), and his demeanor as a gentle yet firm member of the police force.
“Heiress Navarrete and her friend are demanding to see you. I told them to wait in the front. Should I have just brought them here? Did I do the right thing?” Barney smoothed his sleeves.
Catalina smirked, leaning back in her chair. By friend, she assumed Barney was referring to Zinnia Trotter. They’d yet to finalize the arrangements for her payments. It was possible that they both were here to work something out about that. Maybe Ellie wanted to give Zinnia an official title as her handler.
She had expected Ellie to explode like a gasoline barrel once she found out about Zinnia’s job. This outcome was an interesting one.
“Thank you, Barnabas. You may bring them here.”
Barney bowed his head, then left to get the girls. Ellie beat him to the room. Catalina held up her hand to stop Ellie from saying anything. It was no surprise that the gesture got under Ellie’s skin. Catalina teased her about it, like the loving aunt she was.
Zinnia was polite enough to follow Barney, arriving a few minutes later. If Catalina didn’t know better, she would’ve said that Barney had a blush on his face. She decided to be merciful and allowed her subordinate to leave without saying anything about it.
“So, what brings you here?” Catalina leaned forward, placing her elbows on her desk.
“Good morning, Intendant Navarrete, we’re here to inquire about—”
“Where’s Marietta?” Ellie interrupted. “Have you heard anything about a pig? Also, I want that picture off of your wall.”
Ellie was referring to the lovely portrait of her 10-year-old self Catalina had hanging in her office. Catalina loved it. It not only was adorable, but it embarrassed Ellie every time she saw it. Catalina had gone as far as to get it framed in a gold leaf laden cherrywood. The Ellie in the painting held a serious expression that was at odds with her puffy baby cheeks and high pigtails.
“Strange, I keep forgetting to get rid of it. I’ll write that down in my calendar,” Catalina said.
“That’s what you said last time and the time after that!”
“I don’t see what’s so bad about it. Everyone talks about it whenever they come in here. I think they want to pinch those little cheeks of yours. You know, if you puff out your cheeks, you look just like that.”
Zinnia eyed the painting. “She does.”
“You’re such a traitor,” Ellie grumbled. “Anyway, tell us where Marietta is. Did you hear any news about her? She’s not at home. She’s missing.”
“She’s not missing. Barnabas and Ezequiel picked her up last night. She actually punched Ezequiel right in the face. When that pig gets mad, she sure gets mad. I don’t think his nose is going to heal the same way,” Catalina said.
“She probably got confused and scared,” Zinnia explained.
“Where is she?” Ellie asked. “I don’t have time to play around.”
Catalina held up her hands in mock surrender. “Wow, Elspeth, you sound like you’re going to bite my head off. Let’s come down a bit. Would either of you like some tea? Azamarie brews the perfect blend for the station.”
“I don’t care about Azamarie’s perfect blend! Just take me to Marietta.”
“How about you, Miss Trotter?”
Zinnia hesitated. Ellie shot her a look. “…Maybe some other time. We really need to know where she is. We’re worried about her. Is she hurt?”
“No, but we have a lot going on, which is why we had to hold her overnight. She fell to the bottom of the priority list, what with the fires and all of that,” Catalina said. Although her tone was mildly amused, she was far from it. “See this mountain of paperwork I’m dealing with? We’re fortunate that it doesn’t seem like there were any casualties. The structural damages to some of the buildings, though…”
“We don’t care about the buildings. We only care about Marietta,” Ellie said.
Catalina threw her a look of overly exaggerated shock. “Good golly, Elspeth! You’re so frigid-hearted and callous. Taking a page or two out of Miss Trotter’s book would serve you well. Look how much of a sweetheart she is. That’s Chieftess material right there.”
“I don’t have to be like Zinnia to be a good Chieftess.”
“We’ll see. Anyway… Hilda probably took Marietta back by now. We can go check, though. She only stopped in to talk to her a short while ago, I think. These papers kinda make me lose track of time.”
“Back?” Ellie squeaked. “Back where?”
“Not back to the farm, silly,” Catalina said. “Back to her house or whatever you want to call it.”
“Okay, bye, then!” Ellie shouted, entirely too loudly for the comforts of a building. “Zinnia, you check here in case she still around. I’m going back. Meet us there as soon as you can.” She raced out of the door.
Judging by the sudden yelp and thud in the hallway, she must’ve ran into someone full-force.
Catalina laughed quietly. “You must have your hands full with her. I take it she doesn’t know about your job?”
“No. I haven’t found the right time,” Zinnia said. She fidgeted a bit. “Can we go look for Marietta now?”
“You seem like something is bothering you.”
Something was warring behind her eyes. Years of interrogating people made Catalina an expert on picking up minute details like that.
“It’s…scary in town right now,” she replied.
“We have it handled. You have nothing to worry about.” Catalina allowed a pleasant smile to slowly spread on her face. “Is that the only thing that’s bothering you? Do you have something to tell me about Elspeth?”
“She was acting weird because things weren’t working out between her and her crush. I’m helping her to…um, work through it. She should be back to normal soon? I-I mean, in my opinion she’s well on her way to being normal.”
All the shaking and stuttering in Zinnia’s words cast suspicious shadows over her statements. Catalina was tempted to pry, but the point of Zinnia’s role wasn’t to expose Ellie’s privacy about something so benign. If Ellie ever talked to Catalina about it, Catalina would give her advice on the best ways to get over a girl.
And in the future, when Ellie was older and the same thing happened (and it was bound to), they’d have drinks together and commiserate at her favorite bar. Hilda would complain about it, no doubt, but Catalina would explain it away as a rite of passage. Besides, when she prefer her daughter to get drunk with a relative rather than one of her friends? There was no guarantee that her future friends would be as levelheaded as Zinnia Trotter.
Catalina looked forward to the time when she and Ellie would be more like equals.
“All right,” Catalina said, standing up from her chair. “Let’s go check on Marietta, shall we?”
She’d never seen Zinnia Trotter look so thankful.
The girl Hildegarde Navarrete found napping outside of Marietta’s shack of a home looked positively exhausted. Her clothing–a fur-patched poncho over a sleeveless top, a pair of pants that seemed to have dried blood on them, worn-down leather shoes, and a flapped hat—read as foreign. She was in need of a bath or better yet, a mother to take care of her.
Sunflower, Ellie’s dog, carried on rolling in the grass close to the young girl. She acted undisturbed, as if she knew her. Hildegarde was aware of Sunflower’s shortcomings so it was possible that the girl simply fed her a couple of treats to win her over. Sunflower became everyone into anyone’s friend with that happened.
Hildegarde’s inner alarm bells went off when she noticed a familiar set of plates next to the girl. She had received them as a gift from the local potter’s son. Accompanying the porcelain were pieces of silverware from her mother’s collection.
She was already on high alert due to the way Marietta was acting in the interrogation room. There was something shifty about her that didn’t sit well with Hildegarde. She didn’t approve of her friendship with Ellie and her most recent experience with her only reinforced her thinking.
A knife rested in the scabbard attached to the girl’s belt.
Hildegarde gripped the hilt of her saber. She always made a point of having a weapon with her whenever she journeyed into the woods, even the woods this close to Stockbrunn. Things and people often wandered where they didn’t belong. Case in point, the stranger who her daughter was feeding.
Could it have been for blackmail reasons? Or had Ellie gotten caught up in another girl’s schemes and nefarious plans?
“Wake up,” she said. The girl bolted awake. Before she could reach for weapon, Hildegarde warned, “You touch that at your peril. What is your name and where do you come from?”
“Wait.” The girl raised her hands to show that she meant no harm.
… Which, of course she didn’t, she was at a complete disadvantage. To mean harm would mean her potentially meeting a cruel and avoidable end.
“Start talking,” Hildegarde urged.
“Shreya. The woods. I am not a bad person. I can go.”
Her accent was difficult for Hildegarde to place. Figuring out her ethnicity wasn’t as pressing a matter as others, though. “Why are you here?”
Sunflower sat up, becoming their rapt audience member. Her tail wagging, her head turned left and right as she followed each speaker.
“I am a friend.”
“Of who?” Hildegarde didn’t want to resort to harsher threats to get the girl to be more forthright. “Tell me the name of who lives here.”
“Marietta. She is not here,” Shreya spoke hurriedly. Fright shone clear in her eyes. It even wormed its way into the shaking of her fingers.
“Who introduced you to her?”
“The… The heiress of Stockbrunn. She is the leader. Do not hurt me or she will know. It won’t be good for you.”
Hildegarde didn’t ease on her glare. Inside, she was panicking and running in circles trying to figure out what connected her daughter to this vagrant. As she thought more about it, she started retracing some of the things that it happened recently. Her daughter’s insistence to go to the woods, her daughter’s off behavior…
“She feeds you. She takes care of you?”
Shreya paused before answering. “You say that. It can be said.”
“Who is she to you?”
“I do not understand. Ah, I am new to this language.”
“A mere friend? Your caretaker? Something else? What do you call the heiress, your…?”
“Not understand,” Shreya said.
Hildegarde nodded, sensing where this conversation was going. “Okay, you’re being stubborn. I would’ve preferred to keep this easy. You seem like you’re important to the heiress to some degree. I think the best thing for us to do is for you to come with me.”
“And I can’t leave you here. You’re an unknown person lurking around the town. You’re familiar with the heiress and her friends. There’s too much about you that is suspicious and strange. You must understand why I have to take you back with me,” Hildegarde said.
She took a step back. The increased distance gave the girl an opening to reach for her knife. If she did that, Hildegarde knew how to disarm her. She expected that a simple maneuver would do it, then she would forcefully take the girl to Stockbrunn. Perhaps the girl would run away instead. Since she lived in the woods, she had to be smart enough to a size up an opponent she was sure to lose against.
Your move, woods dweller.
Your move, indeed! In a big rush to not be late to something that’ll have me out late tonight so sorry – didn’t proofread any of my dictation mistakes this time. Expect some homonym errors and some oddness here and there. I will fix up this chapter tomorrow. <3
Should be all fixed now! Voting will end on Sunday, November 12th at 11:59 PM EST. Next chapter will be Tuesday, November 14th.
Voting results we saw here…
“What will Zinnia do?” 8 people voted for her to agree to go along with Ellie and 1 person voted for her to refuse and tell Catalina about it. This answer’s a little more implied than clear due to the POVs we were working with here (and might I add that I enjoyed writing as Catalina & Hildegarde?).
“Will Hildegarde meet Shreya?” 3 people voted for Ellie intercepting Hildegarde before that could happen. 4 people voted for them to meet, because Ellie runs into someone else. That someone else turned out to be Zinnia, as seen in the chapter before this one.
See you next Tuesday.