The Poison Garden

In the dead of night a girl flees all she's ever known, fearing for her life and seeking to save that of her brother.
Far into the forest, beyond yew trees grown on human flesh, she seeks the Serpent, a small community of individuals secretly thriving away from the pious eyes of the Garden.
If she's lucky, their interests might just align.

Follow Henbane, Bluebottle, Mistletoe and others as they seek to tear down their old lives in order to build them anew.

(Cover by WinterSoldier)

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18. Chapter 17 - Khat

The reaper was present.

Khat didn’t understand why Yew needed to be present for this meeting, but for whatever reason they stood in the corner, completely black except for their moonlight-eyes and a decoration resembling teeth on their lips.

The hut creaked around them, as though it was barely holding up under the battering of the wind that had rolled in overnight.

Every member of the Serpent gathered around the table, each in varying states of concentration surrounding the map laid out on the table.

It had been drawn on excessively in pencil by Wormwood, taking instruction from Henbane, surprisingly, and others on what the best course of approach would be.

Despite having contributed – or perhaps because she’d contributed – Henbane’s concentration now seemed the most lacking. Her fascination was obviously more clearly gripped by Yew, at whom the girl stared.

Very gently, Khat reached across the table and brushed Henbane’s hand with her fingertips.

“Stop staring.” She hissed.

Henbane twitched, and turned her eyes back to the map, but her head continued to stray to the reaper.

Khat decided it wasn’t worth trying again. The reaper seemed unphased, anyway.

“This-!” Mistletoe finally broke her barely maintained silence. “This isn’t what we should be focusing on right now!”

Everyone turned to her. For once, she had appeared in public with tangled hair and tired eyes. For thirty minutes, whilst the rest of the Serpent debated and discussed, Mistletoe had stood staring at the map as though her glare could set it alight, occasionally settling Khat with a begrudging stare.

Obligingly, Wormwood turned her attention to Mistletoe.

“We need to help the Weeds!” Mistletoe screeched, “They’re going to be attacked, we need to get them out! This-”

She flailed at the map and the plans drawn onto it.

“This can wait! Their safety should be our top priority!” Then, keeping her eyes firmly on Wormwood, she flung her arm out to indicate the rest of the members, “They knew! I told them last night! You were out! Where did you go?”

“Walking.” Wormwood’s voice was firm but light.

“Agh!” Mistletoe growled, upsetting the balance of her hair further with an agitated hand, “Please! We have to help the Weeds before we do anything else!”

Wormwood glanced around to the others as though asking for confirmation, then nodded at the woman she knew almost as an older sister.

“Explain it to me.”

So Mistletoe did, the words pouring out as though the dam of her mind had broken.

But Khat suspected she was still holding something back.

The woman was bitter and arrogant, despite her friendliness, and Khat had never fully trusted her.

They agreed on very little, including Khat’s relationship with Wormwood – based upon Khat’s occupation.

But on this-

“I agree with her.” Khat admitted, making sure her disgust about the sentence was clear, “The messiah is amongst the Gardeners, and the one most likely to order that the Weeds be attacked, but he isn’t the only one. We should prioritise the safety of the general people over the retrieval of one man.”

That brought Henbane’s focus back.

“No!” She protested, suddenly confident, “If we get him out first, the Gardeners will be too occupied with their chaos, like we said before! They won’t have time to think about attacking the Weeds!”

“More likely,” Khat sighed, “In their panic that will be all they feel they can do.”

“Or, alternatively, those Gardeners planning a coup in government do step up.” Hemlock shrugged, studying her nails, “And the Weeds are just at risk – if not moreso – as now. My dears, no one who’s just taken power wants to be immediately overthrown.”

“So we do both at the same time!” Henbane suggested, desperate.

“We can’t.” Wormwood shook her head, “We don’t have the numbers.”

“We have plenty of allies!”

“But very few that could lead others in two discrete acts. We would have to act at night because the largest portion of our allies and members are considered criminals.” Wormwood explained, patiently, “A farmer walking around at night would be suspicious, and whilst priests do visit homes on request, the amount our few priest allies would need to visit in one night, and beyond their own areas… it would be too slow. We would have to rely on the thieves, and of those, only a small portion are really known and trusted enough for the Weeds to listen.”

“Then the members here will infiltrate the Chapel of Knowledge alone!”

“There are a lot of Weeds. The members here would be taken up havin’ to supervise their movement.” Hellebore spoke up, adding another voice to the argument to try and quell Henbane’s frustration, “There simply aren’t enough of the thirteen of us who could sneak into the Chapel of Law without help.”
Laburnum nodded along.

“If we went alone, we’d be caught in no time.” She added, “Actually, removing the Weeds might work in our favour for taking the Messiah.”

“Right!” Mistletoe beeped, almost bouncing with relief and excitement, “If the Weeds are out of the question, then the Gardeners may be flustered, but they would have no one to attack. We’re way out here in the woods, and the Weeds will be, too.”

“Not to mention their forces would be depleted, anyway.” Khat folded her arms and looked at the map to avoid Henbane’s eyes, “A large portion of the Herbicide and some of the Pesticide have family in the Weed Pit. They mostly won’t agree with the Gardeners’ orders. They only stay for the money for their families. If the families are out of the town, and fed and protected… there’s no point staying. I say they would come, too.”

“The squadrons out searching for us would stop…” Bluebottle explained slowly, “The Gardeners would keep their remaining soldiers close so that they could watch them.”

“We would add to our own forces!” Medlar spoke up, thrill in his tone, fist clenched, “With the Weeds working directly with us, we could do much more than just remove the Messiah, we could tear the whole government down!”

The room fell to silence, ringing in Khat’s ears.

“You could.” Yew’s voice echoed, startling everyone.

Henbane drooped, defeated.

“But we won’t.” Khat countered, sternly.

No one spoke.

“We won’t.” Khat repeated, putting more force into her words.

Still no one said anything.

All eyes settled on Wormwood, who was looking at the map, and not meeting Khat’s demanding glare.

“I…can’t advocate destroying all those lives, but…” She started eventually, voice low, “I would like to get rid of the Hand.”

Khat noticed an interested light flicker in the eyes around her.

She could admit it was an awful establishment, it needed to be gotten rid of, yes, but how?
“Some of the people down there are real criminals!” Khat protested, striding with a storm in her steps to stare Wormwood down. “You can’t be proposing we just let them out!”

“If they’re there, then they’ve likely already-”

“And what of the people – the volunteers – who work there? They’re a threat, how would we deal with them?”

“They’re monsters, they should be killed!” Medlar hissed from where he was, almost jumping onto the table in anticipation. “Or better yet, thrown into the cells themselves and subjected to what they hand out!”

Khat threw a deadly sneer at Medlar, but he did not back down.

Whatever.

Wormwood was more important.

“Wormwood!” She demanded an answer, “What about the Roses?

“What about them?” Medlar snorted, “They can go, too!”

Khat ignored him.

“Wormwood.”

Finally, Wormwood met her eye, determination fluctuating, but there.

“I wouldn’t encourage killing the workers. We would try to knock them out, and then put them in the cells like Medlar suggested.”

Medlar started to whoop in celebration, but was quickly quieted as Wormwood continued.

“They will not be tortured!” Her voice rang with stern emotion, “And they will not be killed.

For a few seconds longer, Khat held her gaze, searching for any sign of weakness surrounding the idea.

But Wormwood was clearly feeling stubborn.

“They better not be.” Khat snarled, and returned to her position.

Again, they began to pore over plans on the table, this time on a different map that Hellebore brought up of the Weed Pit.

When the Serpent agreed, the Thief Lords were called to the meeting from the various rooms they had taken up with their families and friends.

For another hour, they threw new ideas around – who to send, how to organise it, who should go where, in what order should the Weeds evacuate - until, finally, a plan was fully and elaborately determined.

“Do we all agree?”

Grudgingly, Khat nodded, as small a nod as she could manage, keeping her rage pinned on Wormwood.

The plan was agreed.

Slowly, everyone retreated back their own rooms to prepare for the first job:

To get the Weeds in, the rooms must first be vacated of allies.

 

~

The job wasn’t too difficult; most had homes to return to, and the thieves who may not have had left as soon as their Lords returned with their instructions to set their plans into motion.

However, it was slow. Many of the farmers and their families had brought cases of belongings, and slowed the queue of those pouring out as they bump-bump-bumped them up what seemed like endless sets of stairs.

What slowed the process even more was the fear of being heard, which demanded that the allies be let out in small bursts to avoid great outcries of noise that could reach the town, or any passing squadrons that may already be on the prowl.

It would be mid-day of the following day before they were all out.

Bluebottle had already left long ago, Khat couldn’t stay to watch either– she had to work.

She knew evening was falling outside from her time spent at the door to the hut, encouraging quiet as allies left.

Quickly, she changed on her own, tying the strings of her corset and replacing the day’s make-up.

“Be safe.” Wormwood called to her, as she hurried to the exit leading to the town.

Khat muttered a swift goodbye, denying her lover a kiss.

Then she was in the streets.

The sky was thick and black with storm clouds, and Khat could smell rain in the air.

Around her the trees shook and wailed like sick crones, grabbing for her clothes and hair.

Patiently, she stopped to tug them free, well-aware of the threat hovering around her, waiting to grab her.

But she didn’t encounter a single patrol as she wound her way through the woods to the town.

For barely a second, she suspected Mistletoe of lying, but knew better than that about her obsession over Wormwood’s safety – if there were no patrols, it was because they hadn’t actually started yet, and Mistletoe was throwing caution to the wind.

The wind picked up as she walked through town, pushing at her boots as though trying to trip her.

The rain came in in a rush, beating first against the leaves and then against the cobbles before it reached Khat.

Just a moment. Khat thought, standing still and feeling the rain wash through her hair, I’ll just have this moment.

The sky above her rumbled.

I wonder if the Lord is trying to tell us something, she mused, Or trying to warn the Gardeners?

She shook it off and continued on her way, quickening her pace to the Belladonna pleasure house.

It is neither of those things, she thought, sure, It is just an autumn storm.

Soaked through to her bones, she rolled into the scented heat of the Belladonna through the back door she had once used to escape an angry Gardener.

Immediately, she was wrapped in a warm towel by soft, familiar hands.

Most towels in the Garden were scratchy, made entirely naturally, but not the ones in the Belladonna. They were silken to the touch and brought in illegally on the black market from foreign countries.

That was just one pleasure of the pleasure house.

“Mami.” Khat sighed, turning to look into her mother’s eyes.

Her mother was smaller than her, but was much the same in her face – excessively freckled and hazel-nut-eyed, with a scowl fit to strike fear in anyone who disobeyed her, children or adults.

“My Khat.” Her mother purred back, accent rumbling, rubbing another, smaller towel the colour of fresh cream over Khat’s ruined hair.

They sat in each other’s warmth in comfortable silence, each manning a different towel to dry Khat, cosy by the fire.

When Khat’s clothes were hung over a rail to dry, and Khat had wrapped the towel around herself, she leant herself up against her mother’s pale, comforting shoulder.

“What do I do, mami?” She sobbed, “Wormwood-”

Bile caught in her throat. She couldn’t speak.

“Oh, my Khat.” Her mother whispered back, full of sympathy, wrapping her arm around her daughter and pulling her close, “My sweet girl.”

“What do I do?” She rubbed the towel at her nose and eyes.

“There may be nothing you can do.” Her mother confessed, lips pressed tight, “You’re not her mother, you’re her lover. You can only be there for her, and hopefully, she will be there for you, too. She will listen.”

Khat nodded slowly. Her mother’s wisdom was always clear – there was a slight problem of translation but Khat understood.

“Will you sing?” She asked, “There’s still time.”

Her mother laughed shortly, and then began to rock gently from side to side, singing as she did a lullaby her mother had sung, and her mother before that, and so on, way back into the past:

 

Nani, nani puişor,

Nani, nani puişor,

Până mâni la prânzişor,

Până mâni la prânzişor.

 

Tu să creşti mai mărişor,

Tu să creşti mai mărişor,

Dragul mamii puişor,

Dragul mamii puişor.

 

A lullaby, the sweetest lullaby Khat had ever known. She longed to fall asleep in it, here by the fire, with her mother like in those very rare days was she was small.

But she couldn’t, they both had work to do tonight.

And it was nigh on time the customers would be rolling into the Belladonna, the only place in the town where Gardeners, Herbs and Weeds would tolerate each other.

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