“I turned seven yesterday.” Wormwood beamed, holding up 7 fingers for Tea to behold.
“Good for you, mite.” Tea smiled absentmindedly.
“Did you bring me a present?” Wormwood’s voice was loud, and Tea had suffered nearly sleepless nights for the past month, paranoia gnawing at the inner-workings of his mind. He winced and rubbed his forehead.
A month ago, Poppy had confronted him again, and whispered that she knew.
She had grown into a menace of a sixteen-year old – a head taller than him and still growing, with a sly smile and stutter that only continued to fade, making his excuse that he couldn’t understand her decrease in credibility, and thus it became evermore difficult to avoid her late night interrogations.
He wasn’t sure how she could possibly know, but the hint of it bugged him.
At night she knocked, in the day she was prone to wander, as she had done three years before, and turn up, shaking with illness, in the woods, sending Hellebore’s worry spiralling.
“I turned seventeen a month ago.” He sighed in pain, trying to look happy, “Did you bring me one?”
He slouched further in the worn down chair, eyelids heavy, though the day had only progressed halfway. It was hot outside, midsummer, and Tea was grateful that he wasn’t on a schedule to work.
Since the disappearance of Rue, the children of the orphanage had been working as a group to support everyone; each and every one of them had a job to do, part time or full.
Tea busked in the streets with his mother’s repaired guitar and a tiny tin cup.
But today was a Sunday, and many of the other children weren’t at work either, and Wormwood had liberty time from her studies.
“Khat brought me a present.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“Hellebore and Bluebottle left a gift by the fence. Foxglove gave me one in the market.”
“How nice.” He didn’t know who Foxglove was- a study mate, he supposed, another Gardener’s child. He let his eyes close and yawned, “I didn’t.”
Wormwood fumed for a moment.
“Abonsam gave me a little sheep carving, and mummy and daddy gave me a new outfit, and aunty and uncle gave me a holy edition of the God’s book, and Khat made me a daisy chain headband… and Bluebottle and Hellebore got me a trinket box… although… I’m not allowed jewellery… but…”
“Good.” He muttered, dozing, “Good. I didn’t.”
“Well, why not?” She stomped in irritation, “Get me one.”
Something niggled at the edge of his consciousness, drawing his eyes back open. He eyed Wormwood, her determined hazel glare on him like she was trying to break into him.
“What are you doing?” He sat up, hands brushing lazily over the rough fabric of the chair.
“Nothing.” She mumbled, and then, “Get me a present.”
The feeling struck again.
“What is that?” He looked around.
“Now.” And it struck again, and suddenly he was on his feet, and reaching for his money from his shoe, and…
He stopped, and turned, and Wormwood was still staring at him intently.
“No.” He snapped, putting the change back inside his tattered shoes. “I said no.”
Firmly, he sat again.
Wormwood took in a sharp breath just as the front door creaked open and then slammed shut.
“Anyone in?” A warm voice fluttered through the opening to the living room.
Poppy leant lazily against the entrance, Hellebore looking particularly small beside her, being inches smaller than even Tea, who had discovered that, as men went, he was not even close to being the tallest; even Bluebottle had half an inch on him. They both had their hair held back, Hellebore’s red frizz sticking out of a pony tail around her face; Poppy tried to contain her messily chopped shoulder-length hair in a hair net, but it escaped in enough places that the net had become redundant.
“Joy.” Tea sighed, and collapsed back into the chair.
“Early fi-finish.” Her grin was devious, eyes trained on Tea, “H-Holy day, y-you know.”
“I know.” He grumbled and yawned again, wiping sleep from the corners of his eyes.
“Poppy!” Wormwood leapt at the girl, drawing her attention away from Tea with alarm. “I turned seven yesterday!”
Tea looked up as Poppy’s scowl flickered off her face to be replaced by a grin. Hellebore watched them carefully. Poppy was somewhat unstable, they’d found, and she had no patience for children like Wormwood.
Tea wondered why she’d attract Poppy’s attention when Hellebore was generally the nicer person to her.
“Oh, w-well done!” Poppy replied, partially sarcastic. Tea couldn’t help smirking.
“Do you have a present?”
“I’m… b-broke.” Poppy pulled out her pockets, dropping the ladle she had mistakenly returned with from one hand. The two girls worked in a soup kitchen hidden by the base of the hill that provided food to the various homeless. It was a low-profile operation, but working wonders, or so he had been told.
Wormwood picked it up and tapped her with it, Poppy laughed insincerely and snatched it back.
“Can I have that, then?” Wormwood asked, wide-eyed.
“N-no, I u-use th-this for work.” Poppy was irritated. Tea took no time to laugh; Wormwood was getting on his nerves as well.
“Then…” As Wormwood began to speak, Tea felt a buzz in the air, a similar feeling to what he had felt in his mind when Wormwood demanded a gift from him. “Will you show me where you lived before?”
Poppy’s focus faded.
“Sh-show y-you where I…?” Her voice was distant, but Tea couldn’t tell if the cause was bad memories, or something else.
“Wormwood,” Hellebore warned gently, “I don’t think that would be good for-”
“Show me where you use to live!”
“Wormwood.” Hellebore was firmer this time. “You shouldn’t-”
“S-sure.” Poppy smiled brightly, “Since I didn’t get y-you a p-present. When?”
Poppy reached out a hand to the young girl, who took it eagerly and dragged Poppy out of the door again.
Hellebore and Tea exchanged a glance, and then Tea jumped to his feet, telling Hellebore about the feeling before as they left in pursuit of the other pair. Hellebore confirmed she had felt the buzz as Wormwood spoke to Poppy, too.
Curiosity drove Tea more than worry – he’d heard rumours of Roses having strangely increased ability to influence the actions of other. Tea thought it was due to power, or money, but there could be something else…
“Do you think it could be magic?” Hellebore’s voice was low as they passed by rows and rows of houses, descending the hill, towards the forest.
“Is there really a magic that can do that?” Tea hissed back, “Then again, with Wormwood’s attitude, I wouldn’t doubt her creating it herself.”
“No.” Hellebore shook her head. Poppy and Wormwood were metres ahead of them, in plain sight – the streets were clear, most people sleeping on the holy day. Poppy seemed to stop every now and again, looking back with bafflement on her face, and fear, but Wormwood grinned and spoke to her, and she turned back, pulling ahead of the little girl. “I’ve heard of it. ‘The Angel’s Magic’, I think. Rue told me there were five types. I don’t know the others, except ‘The Demon’s Magic’. I found out the others on my own a while ago, just at the library.”
Tea paused, happy for the excuse to rest. His limbs were heavy from sleeplessness.
“How did you get in there?” The only library was at the very top of the hill, and reserved for people with influence in government, or Rose status, or otherwise related to government.
Hellebore glanced around nervously and lowered her voice even further.
“I told you about my mother.”
She had told him about her mother – and her father being absent, or dead, but she wasn’t sure. Her mother worked under the government, but she didn’t know the position; her mother’s boyfriend had gotten her mother a position there when they got together. Hellebore had never liked him – she said he wore priest robes, but was too beefy for a priest, his muscles looking like they were used to beat up cows or hoist machinery. Her dislike had been apparent, even though she was little, and her mother had grown angry – she still had the scars to show it.
But she hadn’t seen her mother in years, since she’d managed to run away.
Still, Tea supposed, a name must have power.
Even Tea had heard her mother’s boyfriend’s name flying through the streets – he was terrifying, and huge, and did unspeakable things in an unknown area at the top of the hill. Torture, the thieves would whisper cautiously, hiding their faces, The Gardeners are torturing people, and Darnel Loa opted to conduct the interrogations.
Ranuncula or Loa, tout a name and look neat enough and they’d let her in wherever.
“Tea!” Hellebore hissed, looking back at him where he had stopped to think. “They’re getting away!”
“Right.” He caught up, and then ran passed her, “We better hurry then, hadn’t we?”
“Th-this is…” Poppy’s voice was quiet, and more frightened than he had heard it in years. She stared at the small house like it might open up and swallow her whole.
From what he knew about what had happened inside, Tea could clearly imagine that happening. “P-please, I-I w-w-want to le-leave.”
She tried to step away.
“Let’s go inside!”
Poppy drew her step back, and her eyes were wide with terror, her muscles tense and shoulders high. She stared at the door, and then back at Tea.
Her eyes met his, but she didn’t feel invasive, she seemed afraid.
She wants comfort, he realised, She wants me to give her comfort.
How could he possibly comfort her? She’d been nothing but trouble to him since he took her back to the orphanage.
Anyway, he added, folding his arms, what kind of comfort could I give? I have no experience of her kind of situation.
“Ow!” Wormwood was yelping, trying to tug her hand from Poppy’s fearful iron grip. “Poppy! Ow! Let go!”
“Wormwood!” Hellebore hissed, voice low, “This isn’t fair on Poppy, come on. Quickly, let’s-”
The world grew dark, dimming as though a cloud covered the sun above them, but the sky remained blue.
In the distance, the canopy of the forest warped.
“N-n-no…” Poppy could barely form a word, “I-i-i-it… H-h-h-”
The door of the small building had crashed open, and a man peered from within it.
He looked small and frail despite his height, with sagging skin nearly as dark as night, and eyes like battered steel – fatigued shadows ringed them. His coat hung baggier than his skin, stained with all different colours, faded to a dirty grey.
When his eyes met Poppy’s, she bolted.
Twigs snapped, trees groaned, and the warping trees got closer and closer, Tea feeling heavier and heavier until his eyelids had closed, and he was falling… falling…
Warm arms wrapped around him, holding him close to the ground.
“Tea?” A soothing voice… Hellebore. Tea blinked and looked up into her eyes.
“Sorry…” His voice was barely a whisper as he tried to sit up. “I… haven’t slept…”
Hellebore, forced to kneel beside him because of the weight of the atmosphere coming closer, wasn’t paying attention to him. Her concerned gaze was frightful, and focused on Wormwood.
“Come back.” The little girl’s voice seemed echo, “Isn’t this your father? Come and greet your father!”
She turned to the man, seeming to glow with joy like a beacon through the atmosphere.
“You must be Poppy’s father!” Wormwood said, delighted, stretching out her hand for the man to shake. “My name is Wormwood.”
The man’s eyelids seemed equally as heavy as Tea’s, if not more, and he watched Wormwood’s hand like it was going to hurt him.
But when he reached out, he gripped tightly to a dark-skinned arm rather than the little girl’s hand.
Poppy had returned, and she seemed dazed, under the command of the girl, but when the man began to drag her she seemed to awake with a start, and pulled against his strength.
Her eyes glittered and then overflowed, dripping tears onto her cheeks to leave trails along them; under her breath she wheezed her cries of terror, clawing the air hopelessly with her other hand, begging for assistance.
“You bitch!” The man hissed, old but venomous, “You little rat! Running from me! Selfish! Selfish!”
“Poppy…” Hellebore tried to force herself to her feet, but the distorted trees were closing in, making movement more difficult; the temperature dropped to deathly cold, and somewhere Tea could see an eery white glow, like moonlight on bleached bones.
The house was surrounded by yew trees, and Tea couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer.
He let his head dropped, and slipped into a deep sleep.
“They’re in the city.” The voice in his dream could have been a whisper or a shout, from a man or a woman, from the dead or the living. “Have you never wondered?”
What? Tea’s thoughts were hazy and his vision non-existent, all around him was just a vast black expanse. Tea wasn’t sure if he was even anything solid, or even there at all. Where is this?
“Your parents.” The voice spoke again, rasping, “They’re in the city.”
Why do I care?
“I imagine you don’t care, but you’ve trained yourself well not to so it makes sense.”
Who are you?
“Have you never wondered what happens to them in the city?”
I don’t care.
“I can’t tell you.” The voice was monotone. “It’s very grim.”
For a moment the voice seemed to hesitate, as though pausing to laugh at some joke.
“Usually children want to find out what their loved ones do.”
I don’t love them. Tea protested. I don’t care.
“If you want to find out, you should go to the city.”
I don’t care what happened to them. Why should I?
“Most children are fortunate enough to be able to love their parents, but you know a few who don’t.”
They left me.
“Your parents were very kind to you.”
They abandoned me.
“I question the fashion in which they raised you, but they loved you and cared for you. I know this. They may have left you, but they would have come back, if not for a very grim discovery.”
Was the voice making jokes? Tea wondered as it hesitated again.
“And you loved them, and you wanted them to come back.”
I don’t love them.
His stomach – wherever his stomach was – bubbled with rage. Who was this voice? Why were they in his dream?
“Boy.” The voice was fading, “Take your mother’s guitar, and go.”
Take my mother’s guitar?
“Discover how the past worked, do as your parents did, and take your mother’s guitar.”
My mother’s guitar?
“You’ve attracted suspicious attention.”
“I wouldn’t usually intervene,” The voice seemed to sigh wearily, “But this is a dire circumstance. Unsavoury eyes know you, and you know them. It could get dangerous.”
Where am I going?
“The immortals are watching.” The voice was barely audible. Go to the city.