Oleander thought about the mirror and his reflection, and how in the space of a few hours things that had been the same for over a month felt different.
Hellebore was gone, but he had a feeling he knew where this time. This time, he didn’t doubt that she wasn’t coming back.
Pennyroyal still gripped the letter, she read out loud.
“Second Lieutenant Hellebore Ranuncula,
The Gardeners are aware of your actions, and have become concerned.
I told you, lieutenant, that you would be walking a tight rope when you took that legless Lamia girl. I had assumed you would have learnt your mistake after you were unable to save the big brother.
This is your final chance; return them both, or all the wrongs that they may commit, however minor, will result in the consequences hitting your back, and we will reclaim them ourselves.
An update on the older Lamia child, the one you couldn’t save...” Pennyroyal breathed deeply, shaking, “... we’ve taken the liberty of setting him to work. With such a big body, we thought that a job as an executioner might suit the boy.
Keep in mind the consequences. We will be watching.
Cardinal Darnel Loa.”
Darnel Loa, Oleander thought.
That was the name of the man who tortured me. He signed slowly.
“Me, too.” Pennyroyal’s whole body was shaking, and she was concentrating hard on not giving in to her fear. Her voice was so small Oleander could hardly make it out.
He cut out my tongue. Oleander glanced at where her legs cut off. Did he-
“I was born like this.” She rubbed the stubs of her legs as they fell back into silence.
In the distance bells started to chime.
“You remember?” Pennyroyal asked slowly. Oleander only nodded. “Do you... believe Hellebore?”
Despite the urgency of the bells, neither of the children were panicking; their hearts were too heavy.
I think she had good intentions. Oleander sighed, But she’s a liar. She can’t protect us.
“She took her sword to fight them.”
She took her sword so she could look like a soldier.
“Hellebore is a soldier...”
Oleander grimaced. He stared at his small hands and became very aware of how they were shaking. He gritted his teeth and squeezed his fists tight, wishing they would stop, wishing he could keep them clenched and speak normally.
“She loves us.” Pennyroyal whispered, fiddling with the long part of her fringe, winding it into braids and undoing them again. “She may be a Garden soldier, she may have lied, but she is not a bad person. She would not tell them where we are.”
She stared intently at Oleander.
He gritted his teeth harder.
How would I know?
“Oleander.” Pennyroyal was demanding now. The tone of her voice made Oleander look up - her face was contorted by pain, tears welling up in her eyes. “You are smarter than me-”
Baffled by the compliment, Oleander started to protest - of course he wasn’t, he was still learning, Pennyroyal was much smarter-
“You are! If you were given the time, you would do so much better than me. I know the basics, that is all. But you are actually smart, and you can make more sense of this than me. Please, tell me.”
Yes. Oleander couldn’t lie. She’s afraid. I think she would.
But his heart stung with hope that she wouldn’t, that she’d burst through the door at any moment and pick them both back up and run far away with them.
The bells chimed louder, and people were yelling now, farther up the hill.
Pennyroyal started to breathe quickly.
“She would.” She gasped, “She is going... she will tell them. Are we going to die? My brother! What will they do to my brother?”
I’m sorry. He signed again, brow creased in concern and heart-break. He didn’t want to see her like this again. He had to distract her. Pennyroyal, what was your brother like?
She focused her watery eyes on his hands, straining to breath slower.
Tell me about your brother.
“He... He is big.” She reluctantly began, “Big and... very strong... and kind. When we lived together in a cottage nearby here, he would always sing to me at night, and smile, and say ‘It is okay, Pennyroyal’, like our mama used to say when she was alive, but in our home language. We came from far away, he said, but I was born here.”
The yelling was getting louder. Oleander’s heart was beating fast.
No one was coming to help them. Poppy had been missing for a month, but surely, even with all her problems, she could see now that there was a problem in town. Would her first instinct not be to worry about the poor girl who can’t walk?
Had she thought Hellebore would stick around?
Anger rushed through his body, taking over the fear, and his fists slowly clenched, until his nails were digging into the pale palm of his hand.
“Outside, there was a girl who lived in a cave near the cottage, and my brother would talk to her, and he seemed very happy. When we were out together, he pushed me as gently as possible in my chair,” Pennyroyal continued, starting to smile wearily.
Look at this girl, Oleander raged, look at this poor, poor girl. Tortured so badly she could break down at a mention, unable to walk, unable to take care of herself, her brother stolen from her, her parents gone, and no one seems to care except me.
“So I could barely feel the stones. And the girl would come with us, and cats would come to visit my brother, and he would feed them little bits of pork, Oleander.” She looked genuinely happy now, and she gasped, “Oleander! Oleander, she might be trying to stop them! They aren’t-”
No one had seen him steal the mirror.
Oleander’s mind filled with white, hot noise. They would only know if she told them.
And the sound couldn’t have been more than a block away.
Oleander jumped to his feet.
Two young children have been left just sitting here, he screamed inside, whilst the person who claimed she would protect them has gone and told the people who would kill them that they have done something wrong.
He muttered incoherently under his breath now.
“Oleander?” Pennyroyal looked at him in fear. “Oleander, sit down. Oleander, I am sure she will send someone to save us, even if she has told them.”
The anger filled his ears. He could barely hear her.
He had been betrayed. Worse than that - this sweet girl had been betrayed.
“Oleander!” His feet had taken him to the door on their own, his hand pulled at the handle, swung the door open, and then quietly slid it closed behind him.