Rue had been moaning in the middle of the night.
Her skin was even paler than usual, beaded with sweat and feverish. Her cheeks were hollow and great bruises ringed her eyes. Every movement made her curled up body twitch and shake, faster and faster, and no blanket could keep her warm, no damp cloth cool her down. In the night, her breathing was too laboured to take the time to form words. In the day, she struggled to gasp that someone close the curtain - the light hurt her weary eyes.
In the kitchen, Hellebore was pacing, nails bitten down to nothing.
“This hasn’t happened before. What do we do?” She muttered manically, eyes wild with worry, “We don’t have money for a doctor... Could a priest help? What herbs would I even start with?”
The entirety of the orphanage was in a panic, those who hadn’t worked previously were flitting back and forth from the market and the fields just like those who had, offering their meagre skills - shoe shining, dish washing, sweeping, even digging - to anyone who would take them, for any pay. Stomachs rumbled tirelessly.
The walls were packed with fatigue and pain.
At night, the place sounded like Tea imagined the Gardeners’ so-called Waste did.
Despite his attempt to pass quietly, Hellebore noticed Tea’s footsteps, and rushed to catch him.
“Tea!” She begged, “We have to go to the chapel!”
Tea chuckled lightly.
“The chapel? Are we getting married?” He tried to lighten the tension on his shoulders.
In her worry, Hellebore’s cheeks didn’t even flush.
“Tea!” Streams started to draw snail-trails down her cheeks, swelling her eyes with red and heat. “What if Rue dies? We have no money, we have to get a priest!”
The thought had struck Tea already. Who would take over if Rue died?
His chest constricted as he looked down into the younger girl’s pained face.
He liked Rue, she was his friend... and yet his faith in the city and it’s religion had never been strong, and as he grew it continued to dwindle. His parents always taught him religion was a farce, and only fools believed.
He wasn’t sure what he believed, but he’d seen what the faith was like.
Rather than being saved by that, he would have chosen to die.
“Tea?” Bluebottle was making her way quietly down the stairs; their plan had been to sneak out together to avoid the heavy atmosphere for a while, perhaps find Wormwood, but she hadn’t expected him to be caught at the bottom of the stairs before her time came to creep past.
“Bluebottle!” Hellebore caught her attention quickly, pleading with the same eyes she had shown Tea. “We have to go to the chapel to get a priest! For Rue!”
Instead of giving an answer, making a decision, Bluebottle looked at Tea to make a choice, but a look in her eye insisted that they go.
Bluebottle was worried about Rue almost as much as Hellebore.
Tea bit his lip bitterly.
“Won’t anyone else go?” He mumbled, “You know the religion here is sour.”
“I want you to go!”
“It’s not like faith hasn’t healed before...” Bluebottle was quiet on the stairs, tentative, likely awaiting his decision.
As usual, Tea grimaced. He sighed audibly, and gripped Hellebore’s hand.
“Fine.” He grumbled, “But I’m not sticking around to pray, and we’re going to the one in the lower part of the Herb Garden, not higher.”
As they stepped into the grey day, Bluebottle took his other hand. He was conscious of the smile tickling her lips - she was more pleased than she was trying to seem.
The chapel was small, but not quite what Tea would call ugly; it was long, with a low ceiling, but like the orphanage it had walls of cream pebble-dash, and glass-patchwork windows stained with roses. Unlike the orphanage, this chapel was well maintained, part of it’s up-keeping expense being drawn from government funding and the rest from donations, as little as many donations made were. It wasn’t new, but nor was it old.
It was probably built with the town, maybe later. Tea thought, thinking back to what his parents had talked about. It can’t even compare to the chapel near the farm.
A mile away from the base of the hill was a chapel with leaning towers, gargoyles ringing the spires; it was made of crumbling grey stone, and it had fallen to pieces, but that made sense – it was old, far older than the town.
This chapel was dull to his curiosity compared to that.
There was many a supporter on the hill - it was all that many people had ever known; God was a given here.
Tea always thought that chapels looked more like deceptive prisons than places to heal yourself - intimidating, glorified, and once you went inside you were trapped, one way or another. But not so much this one- Tea pondered upon the idea that it reflected a sunflower amongst dead dandelions, in building form.
Hellebore admired it with awe, though small it was compared to those higher up the hill. Bluebottle glanced at Tea briefly, and then matched his uncaring gaze.
“Well,” She murmured, “Let’s get this over with.”
As she strode in first, he thought about how her words didn’t match her actions. Rather than uncaring and bored, her feet seemed positively eager.
Hellebore rushed in behind, but Tea lingered, glancing around.
Sunflower-amongst-dandelions it might be, but this was far from his favourite place, and it was difficult to hide his discomfort to those around him, even the strangers looking on from nearby, which made his heart beat faster; a poor area this was, but the Weeds who lived close to the chapel were likely the most devoted, and therefore the most dangerous. His parents may not have been inwardly religious, and they may have not technically lived within the city, but the increasing Edenist Gardeners’ had made sure that Tea, like every other farmer’s child, had been raised on their religious propaganda - he had read their books, he had droned their hymns, he had had their teachings drilled into him, and he knew right from the beginning that, somehow, he didn’t quite fit in with all that they spouted.
Somehow, he was not included in the agenda that they were constantly destroying innocent people to follow.
He was almost certain now.
For a long time the Gardenists had been maintaining and nourishing everything that came into or grew within the Garden, with the Edenists playing a small role – raving preachers, criminals, hated neighbours. Since before Tea was born, however, the Edenists had begun to gain power and numbers. Tea didn’t know why, but nor did he know much about politics or what would prompt an increase of fear. All Tea knew was that the Edenists were cracking down on people that didn’t fit their teachings, and the more they did the more threatened Tea felt.
It was like he was being watched constantly, knowing eyes waiting for him to crack.
After a deep breath, Tea smiled courteously at the on-lookers - he could see their suspicious thoughts in their eyes.
“Are you alright there?” One called. The voice sent a jolt up his spine - he hadn’t expected anyone to talk. He glanced at them, briefly, attempting to steady his limbs, steady the rare fear that was spreading through his chest. Was this an Edenist chapel, or Gardenist? He couldn’t remember…
“I’m fine, thank you.” He replied, voice light as he could make it, “I’ve just not been here for so long. I’m surprised it still looks so nice.”
“Of course.” The person replied -a woman, pale, ginger hair, black eyes, early thirties, perhaps. Not especially tall, but she seemed somewhat bow-legged. There was a twitch to her movements. “There are many people who care about it in this city, don’t you know.”
Without another word, she was gone, leaving Tea baffled.
He turned his gaze back to the door, steeled himself, and pushed his way inside.
Inside, Hellebore was already approaching the priest, who knelt in silent prayer. Tea assumed that, just like every other priest Tea had ever seen, he wouldn’t want to be disturbed mid-prayer. Once, Tea had crept to the front when his parents and he had shuffled to an Edenist Rose church unwillingly, and had attempted to talk to the priest. He had been caught with a golden ring, and scolded - how dare he be so disrespectful to our lord, the almighty, the one and only true God!
And yet, when Hellebore carefully muttered his title, the priest finished his prayer and turned round with a warm and welcoming smile, offered his hand and drew her to a pew.
She was seated, and he sat beside her, his posture a perfect figure of patience and acceptance.
The inside of the building was warmly decorated, all the furnishing constructed of pale oak, the candles white and flickering brightly, the walls a pale, calming green.
It was simple, but welcoming.
Tea felt... like he was being lured.
This was not the kind of chapel that he was used to - it was colourful, bright, friendly. More so than in just decoration, but in the aura of it.
It made him even more uncomfortable.
There was no such thing as perfect and friendly here. Underlying all this, something must be corrupted. The Edenists were everywhere. The prayers kneeling on the prayer cushions must know. They could feel it, he was sure. Everyone had a bit of Edenist in them, that was Tea’s experience.
He couldn’t let it seem so perfect. He had to find the corruption.
Bluebottle was beside him. She studied his face, creased in consideration, her own creased in curiosity.
“Tea?” She laughed nervously, “You look like a dog struggling to-”
“What?” He suddenly drew himself from his thoughts. “I’m fine.”
His tone must have been harsher than he intended; Bluebottle startled, swallowed tensely and looked away from him. Her face resembled the way it looked in his early days at the orphanage, when he was angry all the time.
With a deep sigh, he settled into a pew on the back row, right by the aisle - easy to get up, easy to get out.
Bluebottle glanced at him again, unsure, her brow was creased in concern, her eyes inquisitive. She seemed like she was trying to stare into him, but also like she was afraid. He shut himself off, staring idly at a scene carved into wood propped on the far side of the room, painted in unnatural colours - the vines of the Gardeners’ God, the Nameless God, framed the first Man and Woman perfectly. The creator of the image had thought it beautiful to reveal their crude nudity. Tea told himself the story - there was purity, innocence, and then the Serpent made the Woman eat, and then sin was born from her womb, planted with the seed of the Serpent, and they were forced to leave the arms of the Nameless God to traverse the world in corruption. The Gardenists as a majority had abandoned that story, but the Edenists believed that what was born from the Woman’s womb was the Waste, where sinners go to repent after death, carefully watched by the Serpent. It was birthed, appearing as a plague that killed off all creatures, and destroyed the world that the Nameless God had created.
The second child, born from the Man and the Woman – for the Man was forgiving – was the origin of human kind; the Man, Woman and Son pleaded with the Nameless God for a second chance, and the Nameless God, as the Man had, forgave. The Nameless God created a new world, linked to the Waste only through death, a world that the Man, Woman and Son would have to work had to cultivate and maintain, to create an Eden as they had not been able to do in the last world. That was where humans lived now.
Tea had seen similar images before, he couldn’t hide a sneer. When he was a small child, he’d look up at those images and think to himself that maybe everything would have remained pure if...
Then an image seeped into his mind, a new image, and yet so old and familiar. It glowed in a cerise light, like a dream that had half escaped him.
Not long before the hooded girl came to take him to the orphanage, when his parents had left him alone and never come back, a criminal ran loose in the city. Through the streets, the old muttered their name,
“Hemlock!” They grumbled with their backs turned from the pesticide, “And what a suiting name! Insane, don’t you know? Captive for years, and now look!”
“Hemlock?” A few muttered, “Apia? Oh, yes, my grandparents were friends with that one’s parents. I heard she was blessed with the Angel’s magic. Never would have guessed she was a filthy terrorist’s child.”
“Yes...” One replied, “But what ever happened to her?”
No one seemed to know the steps between the child of rebels and the insane criminal. For years she had disappeared, thought dead, and now the name had reappeared.
Yet the streets continued in general peace, as far as peace could be kept in the streets of the Garden. Hemlock was taken at the age of 10, and that had been about 60 years before.
What could an old woman really do to anyone? Tea had no concern for the matter. Sometimes he joked that being caught by a criminal would be better than being stuck on the farm alone.
He earned a clout for that.
Then, one day, the livestock became restless, throwing themselves against the fences, braying, bleating, moaning. Tea had locked himself inside, but any trace of something interesting would draw him to his feet and outside – once, on a similar day, he had heard a rustle in the trees and burst out of the door to be greeted by battering wind that ripped tiles from his home.
This was different.
A man - a young man, features vaguely feminine, powder on his olive-skinned face, thin, with long, wild hair - had his arms out to a chestnut-coloured horse. Inching closer, Tea heard idle prattle pouring from his mouth.
The man was talking to his horse... until he saw the younger boy.
His eyes were wide when he turned them on Tea, one glimmering blue, the other grey with a swollen pupil.
For a moment, he stood his ground, looking Tea up and down.
“Uh...” Tea stuttered, stumbling to make a sound, but his gaze made him nervous, “Do you want a horse?”
He made a step forward, the man stepped back, and curved his fingers, baring his long fingernails like claws.
‘Odd’ was the word that crossed Tea’s mind, and yet... not quite threatening, though Tea had a feeling that it was possible.
He unhooked the horse’s reins from the fence and reached over to put them on, watching the man from the corner of his eye. He thought he could see wiry grey crawling from the roots in his hair, but mostly it was pitch black, excluding a small amount at the very tips which was a peach kind of colour – somewhere between blonde and orange that reflected the colour of a sunset.
The man’s gaze on him made him shudder.
“I could...” His breath caught in his throat, “I’ll go... and get a saddle... I’ll just be... one moment.”
“I don’t need a saddle.” The man’s voice was soft, with a lilt to it as though he tripped every few seconds - a hiccup? A chuckle? “I can ride. I can.”
He grabbed the reins from Tea’s hand and climbed the fence, easing himself awkwardly onto the horse’s back from there. The horse huffed in complaint, but then settled.
“Thank you, my little friend.” Very gentle, sweet almost, “What is your name?”
“I’m... Tea.” He was entranced, pulled in by the voice, the eyes. The man was hypnotising, but Tea couldn’t quite get a grip of himself to figure out why.
“A pleasure, my dear.” The man smiled endearingly, “You’ve had the special treat of one Hemlock Apia.”
Shivers shot like lightning through Tea’s bones.
This man? Hemlock was over 60, a woman, everyone had said so, but this man... he was young. This man?
“Oh.” Hemlock giggled, the tips of one hand’s fingers gently to his lips, “But I mustn’t reveal too much.”
Then he vaulted the fence, and was gone.
Now he invaded Tea’s day dream.
Slowly, Tea rose from his pew as Hellebore approached, mind roiling. The priest had retreated to another room.
“He’s gettin’ his things!” Hellebore cried with joy, “He’s goin’ to help us!”
Bluebottle’s face lit up - happiness a force beyond her ability to control now.
Tea couldn’t even feel a spark, but he forced a smile.
He felt blinded, his mind was frozen, or stolen and hidden somewhere else, and bathed in the hope emanating from the two girls, from the people around him praying, he was invaded by a feeling of contempt.
Joy, he hissed internally, in such a place... it can’t be real.
And yet the hope around him crawled into his skin like spiders, stretched webs around the empty space his mind had vacated and caught his feeling of deception. It became a part of it, and formed something new:
“Tea?” Bluebottle had been talking. “The priest told us to wait outside. Come on.”
“Yeah, I’ll meet you there.” He found himself saying, “I’ll just be one moment.”
When they left he threw the priest a sour glance and directed himself towards a large timber case - constructed like a cupboard, but containing far more space than one would need for clothes and split inside by a slat of wood and a woven net.
The confessions box.
He felt the presence of the priest on the other side - the positivity, the acceptance and the reverence struck him even without seeing the priest’s face.
With a deep breath, he dropped his shoulders.
“Father, I’m concerned.” He began, “I confess of a crime I know. A friend...”
“There is no need to lie, child,” Came the voice in reply, gentle, caring, “That is why we have this wonderful tool, for the acceptance of truth.”
“A friend I know goes against... He...” Suddenly there was a knot on his tongue, the bravery fading, “Father I was taught that it was not to be forgiven to...”
“Take your time.” He hushed, “It is there to take.”
“I was taught that... for a man... to love another man was not to be forgiven...”
“Father?” Tea was doubting himself now, consequences flooding into his stomach as butterflies, his limbs as adrenalin, tensing his muscles. “You seem kind. Would... Would you forgive-’
“Child.” His voice, suddenly, was grave, “I will not spread this, and neither should you. This secret remains within this box. But I implore you, leave this place now.”
There it was.
Hope that Tea hadn’t realised he’d also held – held onto so tightly when he saw the priest’s kind face – disappeared in an instant.
Without another word, Tea left, a hollow feeling in his heart - barely eased by the pride of his being right.
Corruption seeped even into the warmest cracks.