Someone opened the door with a creak. He didn’t care. He didn’t look up. Around him the room had darkened. The smell of mould from the dusty bed sheets clung to his nose every time he breathed in.
Now that he was conscious of it, he could feel the throbbing at the back of his throat where his tongue had been severed, and it agonised him.
The worst thing, though, was that he couldn’t remember how it had been cut off or when. Had it been missing for a while? From the pain it felt like he’d had his tongue until not long ago, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Poppy!” The legless girl had stayed by his side for hours after he’d lain back down and turned away from her. What was the use in facing her, he thought, if he couldn’t talk to her?
He wasn’t prepared to embarrass or hurt himself by trying.
She didn’t appear to mind, she almost seemed to understand. Her voice reading from a book about plants had prevented him from yelling in frustration, but he didn’t tell her so.
“Evenin’, Pennyroyal.” A new, breathy voice said. Someone clumsily made their way from the door to the bed. He felt their weight on the bed as they tried to steady themselves after tripping with a yelp. “H-How is our friend?”
He gritted his teeth, and for the first time in a few hours made the effort to respond, grumbling.
“Oh, listen! Listen!” The person patted his head a bit too heavily, and choked a laughed. He saw their nails were black with dirt, and their dark hand smelt sour. “This’ll be fine.”
“Poppy! Poppy!” There was thumping as Pennyroyal tried to jump up and down in her chair in excitement. “I grew the plant you wanted!”
“Oh? You little wizard smartie.” Poppy stumbled away again. “Show me.”
Oleander glanced over his shoulder, giving in to his curiosity of the new person.
She was tall, with long arms and wild hair almost as dark as her skin, roughly held within some kind of net; half of it fell free, hanging at it’s longest by her waist.
“Magic, magic girl.” Poppy muttered, taking a pot from Pennyroyal; sticking out of the top was a tiny shoot of silvery-green with two long, forked leaves and a yellow form on top. Without removing it from the plant, Poppy chewed one of the leaves. Then glanced over at Oleander and cracked a wide, yellow-toothed grin as she saw him looking.
She had crazy, clouded eyes, but seemed able to see fine.
“The little boy’s awake, lookie.” She patted Pennyroyal, who didn’t seem to mind, on the head this time, and looked back at her. “You look after him, and keep giving this a go.”
Pennyroyal took the plant back with an anxious look creasing her brow.
Poppy laughed again.
“That wormwood’ll make some fine absinthe, little wizard.”
Pennyroyal’s face broke out in joy again as Poppy left, promising to return again soon.
Oleander turned over again.
“Hellebore says Poppy is crazy.” Pennyroyal said softly as a door somewhere else in the building shut. Oleander coughed to hide a small laugh. Pennyroyal continued. “I think she might be, but it is not her fault. It is all the poisonous plants she does work with.”
The floor-boards and the wheels on her chair creaked as she rolled the chair closer to Oleander. He could feel her warm breath on his neck as she leant down slightly.
“Can I tell you a secret?” She whispered. Oleander glanced back, eyebrow raised in curiosity, and nodded. “Poppy is a scientist. The gardeners do not like it, so she does it in secret.”
She pressed a muddy finger to her lips and smiled, looking at him trustfully.
“You cannot tell anyone, or we will all get in trouble- Hellebore and me and Poppy. The pesticide will get us. That is what Hellebore says.”
Oleander had turned over now, caught by the trusting gaze of the girl and unable to resist a small smile; seeing this, Pennyroyal’s joy doubled and she started moving in a hurry, rolling the wheels of her chair as fast as she could.
First she placed the pot with the small sprout in a gap on the window sill - with the curtain open Oleander caught a quick view of dirty cobble stone and the over-hanging boughs of a forest- then grabbed another pot from below the window, using her hand to scoop compost into it until it was nearly over-flowing.
She grabbed the book that she had been reading aloud before Poppy arrived, and then pulled herself back over to the bedside. Excitement made her murmur as she flicked through the book for whichever page she was searching for, and when she found it, she leant it softly against the bump his legs made in the cover on the bed.
“Let me show you.” She grinned widely at him. “I grow plants for Poppy with magic. She keeps saying I could grow loads more types, but she only ever needs the poisonous ones. Look, I’ll grow an oleander sapling.”
After taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and focused, body falling completely still, until suddenly her small hands started to repeat a simple movement over. After repeating the movement a few times, she pushed her fingers into the soil for a brief moment, before pulling them out to dance over and around the pot, weaving around each other. The tips of her fingers seemed to glow as she moved faster and faster.
Oleander gasped - her fingers were glowing, a bright green that started to flow from her fingertips and curl downwards, diving into the compost as she continued her movements. In curiosity, Oleander started to copy the simple movement she’d started with. His fingers didn’t glow, but the movement lodged itself in his mind and an idea started to form - his tongue was gone, which would cut off his ability to speak properly, but if there was another way to communicate...
Then something pushed it’s way through the top layer of soil - a green shoot. As he watched it turned a dusty brown and single long, skinny leaf sprouted from the side.
Pennyroyal breathed in deeply again as her eyes fluttered open, and leant back in her chair. Her eyes widened when she saw Oleander doing the movement she’d just done.
“That is... the movement to grow an oleander seed. You must not have magic... Sorry.” She smiled apologetically. He didn’t understand why she was apologising, but dropped his hands. “There are a lot of other movements. One for each type of seed.”
He was desperate to ask her to teach him, but he couldn’t think of how to move his hands in a way that asked that. She started towards the book to close it, and hastily he grabbed it, sliding it below the covers without giving it much thought.
“My book...” Pennyroyal muttered, frowning. “I barely saw you move. Why did you do that?”
She didn’t ask as though accusing him of something bad: her voice was full of curiosity.
He looked down, feeling almost surprised himself that he had hidden it. He didn’t know why he did it, and slid it back out, placing it down in front of him.
Biting his lip he prepared himself, coughing slightly in nervousness, like it would help.
“T-Teach me.” Or, at least, that was what he meant to say, but it came out more like ‘keech me’. The severed tip of his tongue spiked with pain.
Pennyroyal’s eyes widened again, her lips stretched wide apart, teeth shining in the now-dimming light.
“Your voice.” She smiled, “You can speak. Poppy said not to...”
He shook his head, embarrassed by how his voice had sounded - he couldn’t talk like that for the rest of his life. Somehow, he felt it couldn’t express him - who can sound confident, he thought, when they can’t even make the right sounds?
“It is nice to hear it, though. Will you speak to me again?” She fluttered her eyelashes, gazing at him intently.
“I don’t want to.” He tried, unable to resist those blue eyes. She was so innocent in her gaze, so happy, and he wanted to help her stay that way.
“I will teach you the movements, if you want.” She said, turning the book round. “Choose a plant.”
He was offered the book again and took it, but stared at the cover apprehensively.
There wasn’t a single plant that he could name, and the words glaring up at him from the brown cover made no sense. He couldn’t find anything specific if he wanted to.
Pennyroyal waited patiently.
“Can you read it?” She asked eventually, as he continued to hesitate. Resisting a sigh of relief, he shook his head. Her smile only brightened, which he hadn’t thought possible. “Then I will teach you how to read it, too.”