Wakefulness came to Ellie Navarrete in tiny flutters, short glimpses made on the road to getting up. In a glance of time, gentle fingertips coaxed her hair away from her face. They tucked it behind her ear, moved along by words whispered in a language she didn’t understand. A pleasant sigh left Ellie, sleep overtaking her once more.
She was alone when she finally freed herself from the bed’s comforts. Her limbs were heavy, back and shoulder sore from the weight of her satchel. Sitting up, she rubbed her eyes, her face turned to avoid the light. The lifted curtain exposed the window to the sun, its rays bathing the empty room in a warm glow.
The streams didn’t reach the place where Shreya had slept. Her part of the bed was cold beneath Ellie’s palms, as if the other girl had never been to begin with.
It hadn’t been her plan to fall asleep next to Shreya. She’d meant to take her rest beside Sunflower. Her eyelids took on too much heft during the third story of the night, and she wound up curling herself into a ball and dozing off.
At some point in the night she thought there’d been the weight of an arm (delicate, secure, present) draped over her, but it could’ve just as easily been a dream.
“Sh-Shreya?” Due to throat grogginess it took Ellie several tries for her call to travel.
When she didn’t hear an answer in return, she padded down the stairs.
Her breath caught in her throat.
Everything she’d packed was laid out on the table in the same way a merchant peddling his wares would, organized by type. The books were stacked in a pile. Nothing but a wrapper remained of the jerky. The assortment of lockpicking instruments were tidied together, the handaxe acting as a ruler to keep them in line. Her clothes were folded, ready for her to change back into. The food jars, once on the counters, were missing along with her bag itself.
Sunflower sat in a chair near the door, unable to give her more than a head tilt to go off of. Her usual vigor having been restored, her wagging tail thumped against her seat. Slinging questions at her dog wouldn’t get Ellie anywhere.
The answer was staring her right in the face: Shreya left.
How could she have believed Shreya would actually go along with her protection plan? She’d fought against it the entire trip, only giving in when the night was at its darkest. It took a moment of weakness for Ellie to trust that Shreya, after a life of horror, would be comfortable taking part in a life that was anything but. Ellie should’ve expected this.
People don’t change that easily.
She drifted back to their conversation. Shreya had warned her of this possibility. “If I leave, it won’t be because I didn’t try,” she’d said, but her leaving this early was like giving up before anything started. How do you give up before there’s anything to give up about?
Ellie searched the table for any carvings in the wood, her fingers wandering the surface. Shreya was supposed to leave a letter. She had agreed to that much. Not finding anything, Ellie took to examining the three books for cryptic hints. Her apology note was a bookmark in one of them, but nothing had changed about it. There weren’t any dog-eared pages or torn-out sections forming any messages for her to find.
Shreya vanished without a trace.
Her stomach flipped for a different reason. Ellie gripped the table’s edge to steady herself.
What if the people who poisoned Sunflower took her? The plant’s effects may have still been coursing through Sunflower’s veins, making her useless at her watchdog job. She’d slept like a log through the night, hadn’t she? If Shreya exited the cabin while Sunflower was incapacitated and got kidnapped somewhere out there, there wouldn’t have been a warning. She’d just be…gone.
“Yes!” Sunflower cheered. She bounced out of the chair and stood expectantly at the door.
“What in Casterne are you yes’ing about?”
The door knob turned.
Ellie snatched her handaxe from off the table. “Sunflower!” She raised her weapon over her shoulder.
The door swung open. In walked Shreya, lips upturned at the display before her. She held Ellie’s bag at her side, the glass contents inside clinking together. Ellie lowered her axe, her face lighting up from how silly she must’ve looked with her nightgown, bedhead, and weapon combination.
Unfazed, Sunflower hopped up and down in excitement. Given that there were no more leftovers to speak of, Ellie wondered if Shreya had spent the wee hours feeding her to permanently get on her better side.
“Good morn—” Shreya started.
“Where did you go?”
“I went to wash everything.”
“Don’t do that!” Ellie cried.
“Wash? What is wrong with washing?”
“Don’t disappear, especially when there are mad men out there who want to chop our heads off. Do you know how scared I was? What if something happened to you?”
Shreya set the satchel on the table. “I am sorry for scaring you. To tell you the truth, I was walking to clear my head. Yesterday was a big day.”
Ellie reached out for her arm, then thought better of it. She dropped her hand. “What were you thinking of?”
“Home, mostly.” Pain flashed across her features. “If he’s alright. If I am doing the right thing by staying away.”
“You are,” she reasoned. “Everyone needs time to process what happened. You going back any time soon is a bad idea, a really, really bad idea. You need to stay with me, okay? Don’t go back to them.”
“I will have to eventually.”
“To the people who torment you? They torture you. They…” Ellie took a pause to right herself, to cull her emotions so they wouldn’t boil over. “They’re ruining your life. You’re a beautiful person and it’s like they’re trying to do their damnedest to change that.”
“They are not ruining my life,” Shreya said. “They are my life.”
What could she say to something like that? Going down this path wouldn’t give Ellie the result she strived for. It was as she’d thought earlier: people don’t change so easily, and change would be a million times harder to make happen in someone as shoulders-deep indoctrinated as Shreya was. Freedom would be hard won.
Ellie forced on a smile, her voice brightening to switch the energy in the room. “Well, we sure had an eventful day yesterday, didn’t we? For once I’m kind of glad to be going home.”
Shreya matched her, relief crossing her face before she settled into a similar smile. “How do you think Marietta will react to me? I feel like she will be upset.”
“She has no right to complain about you. She’ll have to see to me if she dares to.” Ellie cracked her knuckles. “No, but seriously, you don’t have to worry about that. She’ll be fine with you staying with her. I think she’s lonelier than she lets on so she’ll be glad for the company.”
“I would hate to impose,” she said.
“It’s fine, really, and I promise I’ll have dinner with you,” Ellie said, placing the handaxe next to her bag. “I’ll lay out a blanket and we’ll have dinner under the stars. It’ll be nice. I swear you’ll love it.”
Their constellation talk hadn’t gone as smoothly and romantically as she had hoped. Astronomy was supposed to be this wonderful, heart-melting topic, but the interest hadn’t been there. Shreya resorted to calling everything a bunch of shapes no one had the right to take ownership of. Rather than appreciating the night’s beauty and calling on stardusted clichés, they settled on the philosophical.
Take two, with a telescope, would be better. Not that she minded Shreya’s penchant for deep thinking, no, of course not. Ellie lived for those moments where Shreya would ask her something and listen to her with rapt attention, like she wasn’t babbling or hiding behind a vernacular that was ill-fitting of her upbringing. The circles she was meant to travel in hated the affected way she spoke, and, to a point, she reveled in them underestimating her. Shreya didn’t carry that kind of judgment with her.
“Will you tell me another story?” Shreya asked.
“Mmhm,” she confirmed. “I’ll tell you everything you want to hear and give you everything you need.”
“I should get changed so we can get going. I don’t wanna stay here for too much longer.” She picked up her clothes pile, mortification setting in as she realized Shreya had touched the one item she’d tried desperately to hide.
“You are forgetting something.” Shreya tapped her bottom lip.
“Huh?” She wiped her mouth, checking it for drool as she died of embarassment for the second time in a row. Next time, she was going to remember a mirror.
“I don’t get it. Wait, oh, that. Yeah, I didn’t pack any toothpaste and I’d rather not kill you with my morning breath, sorry.” More than just a mirror, next time Ellie was going to bring her entire bathroom. Ill-prepared for this sleepover was putting it lightly.
“It has been days without toothpaste for me. I won’t die.”
“Whoa, you guys have toothpaste?” Such a thing hadn’t occured to her. “Not that your breath has ever been bad or anything, but you know, woodsdwellers brushing their teeth is kind of a funny image. All of you standing in front of a mirror brushing away in your nighties, heh. It’s not real toothpaste from a jar, is it?”
“Ash water, powders, and herbs,” Shreya said. “We mix it in a bowl.”
“Is ash water like soda ash?”
“I do not know what that is.”
“I dunno how to describe it. It’s like baking soda. They put it in cleaners,” Ellie said. “How about soap? I know I’m asking all the hard questions today.”
Shreya moved to stand in front of her, closing in on Ellie’s personal space. To get some more breathing room, Ellie stepped backwards until her back met the table. Voice soft and eyes as sharp as the blade on her hip, Shreya asked, “what do you think?”
Ellie swallowed down her nervousness. “I dunno. We’ve got bath houses and lavoratories in Stockbrunn. People along the pipeline get their own private ones, which is pretty nice. Sorry, it just doesn’t seem like something you’d have.”
“Because you think we are dirty and rotten?” Shreya put her arms on the table, on either side of her. They were nearly nose-to-nose, close enough for Ellie to feel the rise and fall of Shreya’s chest against hers.
“Because you live in the woods,” Ellie said, doing her best to maintain eye contact. “I don’t know how advanced your village is.” She cringed at how awful that sounded, but it was true. Woodsdwellers were backwards in so many ways.
“Soap comes from the woods. It is the ash of trees and the grease of animals,” Shreya explained. “That knowledge does not solely belong to Stockbrunn.”
“I’m terrible for asking. I never thought you smelled bad or anything, I just wanted to know.”
“Your soaps may be stronger. You had more of a flower smell yesterday.”
“That smell could’ve been my perfume: Sapphire Hyacinth by Léontine.” It was a jawdroppingly expensive brand, priced in a way that would pale the common man. If there was one thing she’d done right in getting ready, it might’ve been spritzing that on. The ad copy did say it turned women irresistible, and Shreya sure seemed keen on her. “Did you like it? I was worried that walking through the pig farm got rid of it.”
“I did not think to notice it.” Shreya smirked at the distress coloring Ellie’s face. “You look disappointed.”
“And you look like you’re getting ready to tease me. That smile’s always bad news,” Ellie said. She turned her head, only for Shreya to place a hand on her cheek and redirect her forward.
“Can I make it up to you?”
“How do you plan on doing that?” Ellie knew. She just liked taking the upperhand from Shreya. Her smugness had to go. “Tell me exactly what you’re planning, and don’t skim out on any of the details or else I’m not giving you that thing I forgot.”
“I will…” Shreya squeezed her eyes shut. “I will do something.”
“Details, Miss Shreya, details,” she said, mimicking Gaurin’s teacher voice. Seeing Shreya squirm shot a surge of confidence through her. Got you! “If you’re not going to complete your assignment, then I’m going to need to ask you to move aside, ma’am.”
Shreya came in closer at an angle, blue eyes darkening. At this distance, Ellie wondered how much of the heat radiating from her face Shreya could sense. Or maybe this time, Shreya was burning as much from their proximity. Could she feel the way her heart threw itself towards her, straining to meet hers?
Steeling herself, Ellie refused to move, not wanting to break first. This was going to be all Shreya’s doing. Ellie was going to win this game or pass out trying.
“Scared?” She taunted her.
“I am,” she said, the two words tickling Ellie’s lips.
“Don’t be.” Ellie let her eyes close in anticipation. “Fight or flight.”
“Flight,” Shreya said, and backed away. The flame left, the air palpably chilling. She grinned, going to stand by Sunflower. “Go and change.”
“What about the thing I forgot?” Ellie asked. She hugged her clothing bundle out of frustration. “Don’t you still want that?”
“I do, but I wanted to see your face like that. It is funny.”
“You’re unbelievable,” Ellie groaned. “Alright, you wanna get out of here so bad? How about you pack up all of my things while I get dressed? Sunflower, stay and watch her. Make sure Shreya does her job.”
Hearing her name, Sunflower became more alert. “Yes.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Shreya said, smiling from her victory.
~ * ~ * ~
Surprisingly, Marietta received the news of Shreya’s stay well. Shreya stayed out of the conversation for the most part, only chiming in when specifically asked to. The experience reminded her of children being offloaded at the crèche for the day. Ellie provided the explanation, a shortened version of why they temporarily needed Marietta’s help (Marietta didn’t need the finer details about the khadarven and Shreya’s thoughts on the matter).
Blankets for Shreya and extra food for Marietta would come later.
It wasn’t until Ellie and Sunflower left them for what she called a “veterinarian” that Shreya saw the reaction she’d expected out of Marietta.
“You’re not sleeping inside,” she grunted. “In fact, you’re not coming inside at all. I don’t need your grimey paws ruining any of my things.”
“I won’t,” Shreya said. She sat down in the grass. Marietta’s home had a fraction of the space that the cabin had. “When Ellie said you had a house, I imagined larger.”
“Has she talked to you about Zinnia Trotter?”
“I have met her.”
“Then you know why my house is this way,” Marietta said.
“I do not,” Shreya admitted. “You seem to be in a bad mood. Are you?” She didn’t remember them leaving off on such a bad foot, just one that made Shreya need to be careful around her. As a pig, Marietta was fully aware of Shreya’s identity, and had made that clear to her during their first meeting.
“On the contrary, I’m in a great mood,” she said. She fluffed out her hair. Her bows were an eye-searing yellow color, contrasting with the muted tones of her striped shirt and brown overalls. “I’m seeing my best friend after what feels like a decade.”
“Someone is visiting you? Ellie said she is your only visitor.”
“I said that in reference to you. I was being glib. Keep up, wolf.”
“You can call me Shreya,” she corrected. Shreya braced herself, preparing for jabs that were sure to come in the future. She didn’t have any room to strike back, unfortunately.
“Has your ruse been adequately holding up?” Marietta asked. She leaned against the wall of her small home. “I hear that you and Ellie have gotten quite acquainted, emphasis on the quite. Was that part of your plan?”
“It was not planned, no.” Shreya shook her head.
“Regardless, you’re reaping the benefits of it. You reek of each other. I see you clearly have no ungivings about taking advantage of her.”
“I am not.” It took the utmost restraint for her not to snap at her. “I care about her.”
“So says the wolf, everyone’s favorite trickster villainess.”
Shreya sucked in a breath. “Your attitude, is it because of I am here? I do not want to be here, either, Marietta, and I think it would be best if we stop talking. I will sleep outside and keep my distance.”
“Have you forgotten that you’re in my debt? We talk when I want to talk.” Marietta’s eyes gleamed.
“What do you want? I am not interested in being kicked around by you,” Shreya said. She pulled at the grass to distract herself. “I am only here because Ellie wants me to be. Your anger is aimed wrong.”
“I want to get to know you better, wolf. The average wolf would never cross into Stockbrunn’s woods without a compelling reason for it,” Marietta said. “Spying would be one, but you claimed not to be a spy. You were adamant about that. Hm…what was it that you called yourself, her friend?”
“How long have you held those words in your head?”
“I won’t lie. I’ve been looking forward to this altercation since the last time we met. I just didn’t think this would happen this soon and this easily. Ellie dumped you right on my doorstep.”
“But you are not going to tell her anything,” Shreya said. “Your threats are feather light, which is why you are mocking me this way.”
“In due time, I may tell her something. The timing has to be right for maximum impact.”
“You are doing this to toy with me… Let’s end this conversation.”
What had she done to earn this level of vitriol? Marietta had it out for her, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that Shreya was harmless. A trickster—a liar of the worst kind—she may have been, but a villainess she wasn’t. She’d never wish for Ellie to be hurt even though that’s what you’re doing by lying to her like this. You know Marietta’s hatred is nothing compared to hers.
“But if we end this conversation, you won’t learn what I want to tell you about Freesia Trotter. Ellie has you running around looking for her. She told me about how you’re so willing to help her. It’s touching,” Marietta said, peering down at Shreya. “How much do you know about her?”
“She is an important person to Ellie who went missing. Ellie wants to find her.” She ripped up more grass. “I do not need to know more than that.”
“It doesn’t bother you that you’ll never be able to compete with her?”
“I am here, and she is not,” Shreya said. “I am not bothered.”
“Not even an iota?”
“Then why are you balding my lawn?” Marietta asked. “I’d appreciate it if you’d stop that.”
Shreya let go of the green blades in her hands. “Sorry.”
This was going to be a long day. Shreya hoped Ellie would get back from the veterinarian soon.
~ * ~ * ~
Ellie Navarrete’s walk back from the veterinarian’s and to her house was waylaid by a familiar pair, one that she thought she’d prevented from forming again. Noemi, the “Arse End” dealer, was working her painter schtick on the side of the street road. She had three canvases set up, each odd in its own disgusting way: a hand of dripping eyeballs, a pair of lips chewing on a lamp, and two naked legs spread out to reveal everything.
Zinnia Trotter stood by the art display, her arms crossed and foot tapping. She looked at Noemi for help.
“Heiress Navarrete, how good it is to see you.” Noemi’s greeting broke the silence. The top she wore was as low as the one she had on the last time Ellie’d seen her. Catching her lingering eye, Noemi shot Ellie a wink. “My, my, Heiress Navarrete, you look like you’re packed for a vacation. Your bag’s bulging at the seams. What’s that sticking out of it?”
Ellie ignored her. “Zinnia, let’s go get something to eat.”
“Might I recommend Gosia’s Café? It’s around the corner from here,” Noemi suggested. “Take a left at the Greenwurst sign over there. People kill for their breakfast pastries. You should order some.”
“Thank you for the recommendation. We’ll be going now,” Zinnia said. She took Ellie by the arm, and started heading in the direction of the café.
“I will see you later, Z!” Noemi called after them.
Steaming, Ellie didn’t say a word to Zinnia until they were in the café, seated at a cornerside booth. She ordered for them, her status allowing them to get a sampler on the house. The sample platter was accompanied by various spreads, ranging from fruit jams and preserves to cheese curds and herby butter. Off to the side were glasses of apple cider.
She dipped her knife into one of the tubs. “What happened to her dropping you?”
“We weren’t talking about that,” Zinnia said. She leaned on her hand. “I was talking to her about her paintings.”
“I was! I ran into her, the same as you did. She’s not as bad as you think, Ellie.” She smoothed some butter onto one of the rolls.
“As long as you’re not doing that stuff anymore,” Ellie warned, keeping her voice low in case any of the other patrons were listening in. “You know how I feel.”
“You’ve established one hundred times over that you hate it. I know,” Zinnia said. “Do they normally give people this much bread?”
“They’re probably hoping I give them a good review, or that I’ll vouch for them at one of those Council meeting things or something. I don’t know. Whatever we don’t finish, I’ll be bringing back to Marietta and Shreya.”
“You’re going back so soon?” Zinnia bit into a biscuit.
“Not to the woods. I convinced Shreya to come to Marietta’s place. There was…a situation.” Ellie took a sip of her cider.
“…Well? You can’t say there was a situation and then leave it at that,” Zinnia said. “What happened?”
“I dunno if we should talk about it here. What if someone hears us?”
“I don’t think anyone’s going to eavesdrop. They’re too busy with their own conversations, but if you’re concerned, then we can use code names. You’re Esther and she’s Salomé.”
“Wow, you named us pretty fast, zero hesitation. Had those stored up for a while?”
“I like names.”
“They’re too close to our real ones, though. We should say…” Ellie glanced around the table. “Biscuit and Cider.”
“Valentino and Klaus,” she suggested. “You choose who’s who.”
“Valentino’s the manliest man to have ever manned. He makes boys swoon at the snap of his fingers. He can get any boy he wants, because he’s great like that. He’s rich, handsome, and has everything a guy would want in another guy. And he’s the heir of um…Biscuitville,” Ellie said. “Klaus is tall, dark, and handsome. He’s got classic bad boy looks. You’d think he’d be a wild man since he’s from the forest, but he’s actually a gentle and sophisticated soul. He adores Valentino and can’t keep his hands off of him.”
“It sounds like Valentino needs to work on his ego. Your character description of him was distorted.”
“I took some artistic liberties. Can you blame me?”
“Including the part about Klaus not being able to keep away from Valentino? Valentino was the one who begged for my help in getting back in Klaus’ good graces after shooting him. Anyone less desperate would’ve cut their losses.”
“Klaus accepted his apology. You don’t have to keep beating Valentino over the head about it. He’s done enough of that to himself,” Ellie said.
Zinnia picked up a slice of dark bread. “Alright. What’s the situation that happened? It had to have been bad if you’re trying to hide Klaus at her place. I give Klaus many sympathies.” She visibly shuddered, her disgust apparent. “Did his family show up?”
“No, it wasn’t that. Basically, the woods aren’t a safe place to be and Valentino didn’t want Klaus there anymore. He’s taking care of him.”
“Everyone’s been telling him that. That’s nothing new. What made him realize that?” She took a bite out of the bread, chewing as she listened to Ellie talk.
“We, I mean they…” How could she phrase this in a way that didn’t make her sound bad? The blunt truth of why she’d been distracted wouldn’t go over well with Zinnia. Ellie decided to skip the majority of the details. “Beanstalk, the dog, ran off and got lost. When they found him, he was messed up from this mind drugging plant thing and like, a bloody rag. It was stuffed in his mouth.”
Zinnia’s bread slipped from her hand. “Are you making this part up? Is he okay?”
“Yeah, Beanstalk’s okay. He’s at a vet to make sure,” Ellie said. “Klaus said he thought the whole thing was a trap, and that he knew what the plant was. It was weird, you know? The familiarity. He had these details figured out and was so confident about them. He’s confident in general, but this was a weird thing to be sure of.”
“This is why people stay out of the woods, Ellie. Are you confident it was stuffed in Beanstalk’s mouth? He was gagged with it?”
“It was purposeful. It wasn’t like he wandered and found it. The collar of his jumper was covered in blood. I’m getting sick thinking of it.” Ellie drank some of her cider, hoping it would wash down the feeling rising in her chest.
“Did it happen this morning?”
“They didn’t find Beanstalk until early nightfall. It would’ve been too dangerous to travel back at that hour, and Beanstalk wasn’t in the best of health for that. Valentino listened to Klaus’ suggestions on what to do, like make Beanstalk vomit and stuff, and then they headed back to the cabin. It was just kind of weird, Klaus’ certainty and all that.”
“Klaus grew up in the woods. It’s possible he’s come across the plant before. Do you know its name?”
“You know what? I forgot to ask. I didn’t think to take any samples of it, either. The vet said I should have.”
“It’s probably better that you didn’t. They would’ve found out about Valentino sneaking out of Stockbrunn. That vet would’ve told Chief Humpert about it.”
“You couldn’t have picked a more regal name than Humpert?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the name Humpert,” Zinnia said.
“Eh… You’re right, though. It would’ve been like Dr. Cuthberht and that time Sunflower fell in that hole all over again. Isn’t there supposed to be doctor/patient confidentiality? Being the Heiress makes me immune to it?”
“They can’t let you run amok and not tell the Chieftess about it. She’d have their heads if she knew they were witholding anything like that. They’re doing their jobs and fulfilling their commitment to Stockbrunn.”
“Look at you sounding so…so…”
“So mature, I guess. Anyway, back to Valentino and Klaus. Valentino asked Klaus about the poison plant, wondering if it was something woodsdwellers did. I don’t think Valentino was out of line for asking that, by the way. Klaus blew up at him. He swore it wasn’t something his people did, and even had the audacity to say it was more of a Biscuitville thing to do. When has anyone in Biscuitville hurt a poor, defenseless dog?”
“People do, but they’d opt for more direct methods. A poison plant is odd. Did you say it was mind altering?”
“Beanstalk’s eyes were practically rolling in the back of his head. He was blissed out. Gone. Pretty numb and dull acting. Do you know the name of any drugs that can do that?”
“Can you whisper more quietly? You just described an entire catalog. It could be anything. Does it matter?”
Ellie tore into a small loaf of bread. “Guess it doesn’t. Do you think Valentino was overreacting when he thought it was a woodsdweller thing to do?”
“It could’ve been a trap or an appeasement,” Zinnia said, not answering Ellie’s question. “Whoever did it might not have wanted to hurt Beanstalk, and gave him the plant to stop him from following them. Did anyone consider that?”
“Nah, they jumped right to the trap conclusion. Straight to the negative and scary.”
“Did that make Valentino feel more on guard? Did he feel like he had to rely on Klaus more?”
“Klaus is the expert, so Valentino had been doing that pretty much the whole time. I guess that’s another weird thing. Beanstalk went missing, and Klaus was calm about the whole thing.”
“Valentino needs that calming balance. Valentino’s excitable.”
“I know, but Klaus was calm in a way that was so insistent and sure that Beanstalk was fine. This wasn’t something like a ‘don’t worry yourself so much’ type of calm. This was a dead calm to the point where he thought it’d be the perfect time to teach Valentino a thing or two about tracking. Valentino got upset with Klaus over it, but…he’s a weak man.”
“If there’s something that upsets Valentino, he needs to talk to Klaus about it.”
“Oh, he talked to him about it. They talk a lot about things that are going on with them. It’s just that Klaus had told Valentino some personal things about his life right before that, and Valentino didn’t want to add to the bad things going on for him. You wouldn’t know it, but Klaus has been through the wringer in a bad way.”
Zinnia frowned. “Even so, you can’t sacrifice yourself.”
“I wouldn’t call it sacrificing myself so much as putting her before me. Erm, I mean that’s what Valentino says about Klaus.”
“Well, what are you supposed to do when the girl you adore needs you to make that kind of sacrifice for her? She was crying.”
“Klaus cried because Valentino got upset with him about the delays in finding Beanstalk? Tell me if I heard you right.”
“He cried about other things. Hard personal life, you know? We got way closer yesterday. Shared a lot of heart-to-hearts,” Ellie said. She finished her cider drink. “I don’t know if Valentino can handle everything that’s going on with Klaus, but Klaus is worth the effort.”
“You need to exercise some caution,” Zinnia warned. “All of this personal life sharing… How much of yours have you gone into?”
“I haven’t told her every last detail. You know there’s some things I never talk about. I like her, but we’re not there yet, so I dunno. She’s interested in Stockbrunn so I gave her a book from the private archives. Oh, and I kind of promised her that I’d let her know about any war talks Stockbrunn has, but that’s not really personal about me, so nevermind. I dunno why I mentioned that. I guess the book made me think of it.”
“Ugh, I’m bad at keeping up the codenames. Valentino and Klaus like getting to know each other, so they talk about their home lives. Biscuitville and, um, Forestville come up. I don’t get what’s so shocking about that,” she said. “Let me tell you that Forestville is a creepy, cultlike place. That’s probably why Valentino’s so compelled to save Klaus.”
“What is Valentino doing? He’s handing books from the private archives off to a woodsdweller?”
“It’s Klaus. I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. It’s not like he’s taking it back into Forestville with him.”
“What if he does? Who knows what kinds of secrets are in those books? They’re in the private archives for a reason.” Zinnia slapped her forehead. “Klaus cries, and Valentino falls apart. Klaus wants something bolted under lock and key for a reason, and he gets it. Klaus upsets Valentino, and he gets a free pass because Valentino doesn’t want to hurt his feelings.”
“I think you’re giving the private archives too much credit. He wanted any old history book. I just thought he should get one of the better ones.”
“Do you have any awareness at all? You’re in a fireball of a relationship, which is bad enough, and she has you eating out of the palm of her hand. You need to watch out. You have more than yourself to worry about.”
“You don’t trust anyone,” Ellie said. “Klaus could’ve been a good boy from a baker’s family and I’m sure you would’ve come up with a reason to hate him.”
“I can say the same thing to you. I think my reactions have been perfectly reasonable, considering everything you’ve told me. Klaus is a woodsdweller first, and everything else second.”
Ellie picked at a biscuit. Her appetite was waning. “Cultural anthropology’s your thing, isn’t it? How much do you know about woodsdwellers?”
They spoke at whisper level, leaning in closer.
“I know Klaus defies my expectations of a woodsdweller in multiple ways,” Zinnia said. “I never thought their society could be so organized. Nothing I’ve read reflects that.”
“Did you know they have soap and toothpaste? That blew my mind. I know it’s such a small thing, but isn’t that wild?”
“So they’ve stressed some importance on hygiene, at least,” Zinnia mused. “They reject civilized society and yet still retain some of its trappings. That’s interesting.” She took a swig of her apple cider. “I wonder why no one’s studied them in-depth.”
“Because they’re not good people,” Ellie said. “Klaus is the exception. Klaus is always telling me that they’re dangerous and I believe it, especially after what happened to Beanstalk. I think…I think Klaus is a good guy stuck in a bad crowd. The problem is that that crowd’s his family and he’s not going to break away from them.”
“Isn’t that a lot to expect from him, though? Valentino and Klaus hardly know each other. Klaus can’t uproot everything like that.”
“They’ve abandoned him, though. I can’t go into it, but he basically can’t go home for a while,” she said. “You’d think this would be the perfect opportunity for him to come into Biscuitville, but nope. The town scares him. What do you think of that?”
“It makes sense that he’d be scared of Biscuitville. We’re scared of them,” Zinnia said.
“Even though Valentino’s the Heir and can take care of everything for him?”
“Would him being the Prince of Forestville make Valentino any less scared of being in their camp?”
“They’re a freaky cult. We’re different.”
“He might think we’re a freaky cult. We don’t know how he feels about the way we live. We could be the strange ones,” she replied. “Can you pass me those preserves?”
“Yeah, here. So what do you think Valentino should do? I’m feeling more lost now than I was when I started talking to you.”
“He has to watch him. No, better than that, he has to start mining him for information. Everything Valentino tells Klaus, he has to hear twice as much from him.”
“This feels dishonest… I don’t want to mess up anything that we’ve got going on. Aren’t we taking this too far?”
“Maybe if you were a normal person, but you’re not,” Zinnia said. She hid her face behind her cider cup. “And, honestly, I’m worried about Valentino. I know I can be hard on him sometimes, but I’m looking after him. I don’t want Klaus to break Valentino’s heart. Even if he’s not planning anything nefarious, it’s going to hurt me to know he was using you for any reason.”
“You’ll be there for me if he does, won’t you?”
“Fingers crossed that it won’t happen.”
Ellie smiled. “Fingers crossed. Thank you. I almost thought about talking about this with my aunt and I ended up spilling all my guts to you, instead. Heavy details not included, of course. Have you ever thought about being a therapist? You’d be good at it.”
“I think I’d get burnt out. Talking for this long hurts.”
“Since you’ve helped me, why don’t I help you out with your Theres problem? Code name Jebediah. Don’t think I didn’t notice you’ve been wearing that blob necklace she made for you.”
Zinnia looped her finger around the string. “It’s a bug.” She wisened up. “No offense, but I’d actually prefer not to hear any of your advice. Theres and I aren’t getting back together.”
“It could happen! Or has another girl caught your eye?”
“No. One.” Zinnia said, punctuating her words. “How did the rest of your trip go? It couldn’t have been entirely bad, was it?”
“Wonderful. We had some ups and downs—you know about those—but overall, I’d say we had a good time. I can’t wait to see her again tonight. We’re going to go stargazing. I bought a telescope and everything.”
“That’s one of the least creative date ideas I’ve ever heard.” Zinnia smiled. “Good luck and just…don’t forget anything we talked about today.”
“I won’t. I guess I’ll have to report back to you on how things go.”
“If you’d like to,” she said. “Sorry to cut this short, but I have to leave. I promised to help my brothers and sister with their homework and I need them to get to work before school.”
“How’s everyone been doing?”
“My siblings are a handful. Luckily, they’re always welcome at the Stenberg residence so that helps cut down on them acting up,” Zinnia said. “Mother’s the same as she has been, and my father, he’s doing what he wants to do.”
That didn’t sound good. “Do you want to talk about it some time?”
“It’s fine. I don’t want to keep them waiting any longer so I’m going to get going, okay?”
“Alright, see you, Zinnia.”
Had the waitress not taken so long to wrap up the leftovers (so much bread! so many rolls!), Ellie Navarrete may have avoided seeing him.
But sure enough, plenty of time was wasted and she left her booth just as Wilhelm Lambros-Dietrich entered Gosia’s Café. Her cousin sported a fresh haircut, one that brought out the waves in his tawny brown hair. It felt like his entire being mocked her, from his bronze complexion to his solid “it’ll take a tractor to knock me down” stature.
Knowing him, he’d deny any discount offered, because that’s the kind of person Wilhelm was. He’d somehow avoided inheriting any of the brusque attitude that his father, the Intendant of Agriculture had. His niceness had to have come from his other father, Marinus Lambros.
“Cousin, how are you?” Wilhelm held his arms out for a hug.
Ellie humored him for a split second, keeping the contact brief. “I am well.”
“I saw your friend Miss Zinnia Trotter on my way here. She looks healthy.”
“She’s not interested.”
Wilhelm laughed. “I see your sense of humor is as robust as ever.” He eyed the paper bag of treats she held. “I didn’t know you were a fan of Gosia’s. Have you had any of the breakfast pastries?”
“No. I’ve only had the bread and spread sampler.”
“You should try them!”
“Yeah, sure, maybe next time. Look, I’ve gotta go, so, yeah, bye, Wilhelm. Nice seeing you.”
“Did you pick up the dessert for dinner tonight? That’s what’s in your bag, isn’t it?”
Ellie choked. “What?”
“Yeah, your mother invited us over for dinner. My dad’s baking casserole.”
“She never told me we’d be having dinner…”
“Oh! Perhaps it was a surprise.” Wilhelm chuckled. “What does Aunt Hilda think of cinnamon coffee cake?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen her turn down dessert so get whatever you want.”
“Perfect, I’ll see you tonight.”
Ellie went out the door, her head swimming.
Stargazing. Information gathering. A picnic dinner. All of her plans were unraveling.
How was she supposed to get out of this dinner party?