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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9. Chapter 8 - Khat

Overall, the dining room looked tired.

It wasn’t just the fading wallpaper, or the mildew that had crept into the corners.

It was the people.

Torn between action and inaction, the small crowd gathered for breakfast looking less than lack lustre.

Khat knew she was amongst those who were tired because of work, with Poppy and Oleander able to sympathise, and Bluebottle to a lesser degree as a daytime worker.

Henbane looked her own version of tired, still poring over a tattered book that tossed up dust every time she turned a page, causing her to cough and making all the Street Roses – who sat quietly at their own table – collectively jump three feet in the air.

Laburnum already snored from the kitchen. No one would wake her; she needed every minute of sleep she could get.

The rest leaned wearily over their meals from having done nothing much recently.

Medlar’s face was a portrait of sleepy rage – about what, Khat didn’t know, nor did she care. No doubt laying around all day then strutting off to scream his violent rhetoric at Wormwood had done to him what a night of Roses after taking Wormwood in the day had done to Khat.

Khat smirked. She’d rather be tired for her reason than his.

At least she was having fun.

When Wormwood came into the dining room, she practically leapt through the doors. Khat sometimes doubted she was ever tired. Somehow she always had enough energy to laugh, work, fuck, argue, whatever.

If Khat could harbour her as a power source…

But Khat didn’t know anything about the sort of power the Old Civilisation ran on, only that it had been damaging, and the people had been impatient.

At best, she could picture Wormwood running around the entirety of the bunker flicking glits all day long to make sure they stayed alight.

That thought in mind, Khat was smiling when Wormwood sat down beside her and picked a slice of apple from her plate.

“Get your own apple, would you?” Khat protested playfully. “I can’t just let you eat everything of mine.”

“Oh?” Wormwood crooked an eyebrow, “Then I’ll only take half.”

She placed the middle of the apple slice between her teeth.

Khat sighed, feigning exasperation, and then closed her own mouth around the apple as close to Wormwood’s as she could get, so their lips touched.

It was quick, and sweet on Khat’s tongue.

“You ate my half.” Wormwood said, pulling slightly closer to Khat on the bench, “And I ate yours.”

Again, they were mere breaths from one another, eyes hazelnut on hazel, curls close enough to tangle into a red gold blaze.

“The way I see it, you still owe me half an apple slice.”

“Do I?” Wormwood mocked surprise, but her voice was slightly husky, “I think the taste is still on my lips, will that do?”

“It will have to.”

“Then best be quick,” She ran her tongue along the very inside edge of her bottom lip, “It’s disappearing fast.”

Khat leaned in for another kiss.

“Get a room!” Someone yelled, and the whole dining room burst into laughter. The two young women pulled away from each other, laughing with the crowd.

When it died down, Wormwood went to the kitchen to find an apple for herself. Once she was back in her place, Khat felt more comfortable.

Wormwood was warm, her body soft. Khat moved her hips away slightly, so as to better lay her head on Wormwood’s pillow-like shoulder.

Her love tilted her head over to rest it on Khat’s ginger coils.

“Later on, I’ll let you have that half-slice of apple back.” She whispered.

“I look forward to it.” Khat whispered back, taking Wormwood’s hand into her own.

~

 

But that day Wormwood was kept busy – in the morning she took reports from Oleander, with Poppy on standby to translate and clarify; by late morning she’d left the bunker with Pennyroyal to personally meet with the farmers and offer Pennyroyal’s services, as she often did, which kept her occupied until mid-afternoon, and as soon as she returned and ate, Mistletoe was back with her own daily report.

Khat had been approaching Wormwood’s room for a brief talk. She’d spent the whole day trying to sleep, irritated and lusting after her lover – sure, her time with the customers of the brothel was entertaining, but their sexual experiences were limited, and their imaginations besides.

Whereas Wormwood was bright, creative, determined, and knew exactly how to satisfy her – and now all she wanted was to spend some time with her before they both had to leave again.

But Mistletoe was already knocking on Wormwood’s office door.

The older woman settled Khat with an unconcealed glare. Khat knew better than to approach and start a fight, but wasn’t going to leave without making sure she retorted.

With a huff, she flicked her hair back and then curled both her hands into fists, pressed them together, and flicked her thumbs into one another.

Mistletoe bristled, and started to protest, when the door opened. She flattened her platinum blonde hair and readjusted her face to beam at Wormwood.

“Come in.” Wormwood welcomed her. She stepped aside to hold the door open for Mistletoe, and saw Khat standing in the corridor. Her face went slack with relief. “Do you want to come in?”

When Khat entered the room, Mistletoe’s incredulity was easy to see, even as Wormwood sat down and she tried to hide it.

Purposefully, and without asking, Khat pulled another chair from a nearby table stacked high with papers and made herself comfortable on it near Wormwood.

Wormwood reached out for her hand and squeezed it tight, then turned back to Mistletoe.

Khat wasn’t really interested in the proceedings of the meeting, Wormwood was her main concern. Even so, making Mistletoe look as affronted as possible was her favourite game.

She knew the Spotted Rose’s opinions of her, she’d heard them for most of her life, every time she visited Wormwood at her home and Mistletoe was there.

“Can we not speak more privately?” Mistletoe started now, leaning slightly forward as though trying to address only Wormwood, but her voice, and the disgust in her eyes, were plain.

“Is it so critical?” Wormwood asked, eyebrows raised. She wasn’t blind, even if she wasn’t going to call out what she saw. “Will it do any real harm for Khat to attend the meeting?”

“Merely that if the information were to spread…” Mistletoe started, then stumbled to a stop, “She’s hardly of a position to understand-”

“She and I both understand perfectly well.” Wormwood’s tone became sharp, “Whatever you have come to report, she is no more likely to spread it than you are.”

Mistletoe was taken aback, clearly stung by Wormwood’s words. Khat smiled sweetly and the other woman bridled, turning back to face Wormwood with frustration clear in her voice.

“Very well, if I must.” She huffed, “I fear the Gardeners are about to mobilise their forces against us.”

“What?”

Even Khat’s face fell.

In her surprise, Khat noticed the pull of a smirk at the corner of Mistletoe’s lips as their eyes met.

Wormwood’s eyes were wide in uncertainty – flickering between terror and disbelief.

Beneath the desk, she felt Wormwood’s hand wrap tightly around her own.

“How could they-?”

“Their captive, I believe,” Mistletoe let her eyes drop to her feet, and fidgeted with the corner of her pad, “May have said more than she intended to.”

“Rue?” Wormwood and Khat spoke at the same time, faces strung with alarm.

Mistletoe nodded slowly.

Khat’s heart felt pierced. She had known Rue, trusted Rue, loved Rue like she loved her own mother. Rue had been hardly more than a child herself when she came to be the oldest, and therefore the most responsible, of the Orphanage. Khat had lived there for a while after fleeing the brothel as a small child. She was three years old, hiding in corners while her mother and the other ladies did their work, when a regular Rose grew angry and abusive. He had burst Khat’s lip with his ring. In fear her mother had told her to run, and she did. Into the forest she fled. And that was where Wormwood found her. It had been Bluebottle, now a member of the Serpent, and Tea, a friend also living at the Orphanage, who had given her a new place to live. But it was Rue who had made it a home. Rue and her warmth, her knowledge, her care.

Rue with the weight of thirty-or-more young lives on her shoulders.

“No.” Khat denied it, “Rue wouldn’t. She looked after children, kept them safe from harm for how long! She is stronger than she looks, she would never put the people of the Serpent at risk!”

“How else would the information have gotten to them?” Mistletoe pressed her lips together tightly.

“I don’t know!” Khat spat, “Maybe someone’s playing double agent!”

“How dare you!” Mistletoe went to step forward, peat-brown eyes ablaze. Khat rose as well to meet her.

“Stop.” Wormwood’s voice was soft but stern. Both women turned to face her.

In the instant Khat saw the terror in her eyes, her rage fell away, she hurried back to her girlfriend’s side.

“Wormwood, you know Rue wouldn’t-”

“You don’t know what people will do when subjected to torture.” She said gravely.

Khat and Mistletoe both stiffened at the same time, and suddenly became unable to meet each other’s, or Wormwood’s, eyes.

“What do you propose, Mistletoe?” Wormwood asked, breaking the ear-drilling silence.

“We…” Mistletoe hesitated, “We must rise to meet them.”

“Create an army?” Wormwood asked, her voice dead.

“No way!” Khat cried in protest, clasping Wormwood’s hand. “The people of the Serpent came here for security, not to sacrifice their lives!”

“What else can we do?” Mistletoe demanded.

Khat hesitated.

“We’ll move!” She declared, eventually, “We’ll move elsewhere! The Old Civilisation must-”

“And lose our allies? Our food supply?”

“There must be fertile land beyond the Garden!”

“I don’t know how to farm crops.” Mistletoe said pointedly, “Do you?”

“I don’t, but we have the means!” Khat protested.

“Not to feed the hundreds still in the garden who need to be protected as well as ourselves!” Mistletoe exclaimed, then added, accusingly, “Or did you intend to leave them all behind?”

Khat clenched her free fist, hearing her teeth creak against each other.

“The only way to keep a majority safe,” Mistletoe continued, triumphant, “Is to fight, right here at the Garden.”

She brought her fist down onto Wormwood’s desk, imploring Wormwood to meet her eyes, but Wormwood refused to, instead staring at the fist.

“That is the only way to save everyone that needs saving.” Mistletoe insisted, and stepped back.

Seconds ticked by.

“I have to consider this.” Wormwood said shortly, and rose from her chair. “Give me three days.”

With Khat in hand, she left the room without waiting for Mistletoe’s reply.

 

~

 

“Sometimes I think they forget that you’re only eighteen.” Khat mumbled as Wormwood fastened her corset. “I think you forget sometimes, too.”

She swept her hair around her neck with a well-manicured hand.

“I know I’m eighteen.” Wormwood replied, focus on the lacing, “And you’re seventeen and Mistletoe’s twenty-two. Age is a number. It doesn’t matter.”
“It should.”

“But it can’t. There’s too much to do.”

Khat huffed and stood up straighter until Wormwood stepped back and the corset felt tight.

“It could.” She replied, pulling her pots of make-up from her drawer one-by-one. “If you go about this the right way.”
Wormwood pressed her lips tight.

“Khat, I don’t really want to talk about this. Or about what Mistletoe said.”

Khat turned, and placed a freckled hand on Wormwood’s clear, soft cheek. Wormwood was shorter than Khat, but wider, curvier. She emitted heat like a fire made human.

“But you have to.” She rubbed a thumb over her lover’s cheekbone, “Mistletoe won’t let you not.”

Wormwood sighed deeply.

“You’re the one keeping me from thinking about it right now.” She leaned closer and, with gentle lips, kissed Khat’s collar bone.

“My love,” Khat breathed, as Wormwood started to move up her neck, “I would love to let you not think about it, but you have three days.”

She moved her hands to Wormwood’s shoulders to ease her away. Wormwood looked disappointed and Khat felt it, too.

“Mistletoe will be expecting a plan. If she’s telling the truth, everyone will be.”

Heavily, Wormwood fell onto the bed.

“I know.” She grimaced, “But I don’t want to think of one until I know I have to. Until I have more proof that what she says is true.”

Khat laughed and dabbed purple onto her eyelids, re-emphasising the colour for the evening.

“You don’t believe her, then?” She asked, amused.
“It’s not that.” Wormwood sighed again, and lay down, feet still dangling down to the floor. “But even I could see she was trying to provoke you.”

Khat nodded, and started to paint red onto her lips.

“Speaking of which, you don’t need to provoke her back.”

Khat shrugged.

“It’s what I do.”

Wormwood paused, then a smirk appeared on her lips.

“I know.” She sat up again, onto her feet, and wrapped her arms around Khat’s waist. “And sometimes I love it.”

Khat twisted in Wormwood’s arms so she was looking down at her.

“You have to admit she needs a good scolding.”

Wormwood laughed.

“Maybe, but she’s like a sister to me.”

“Does she know that?”

Wormwood almost blushed.

“Of course she does!”

“Whatever.” Khat wormed out of Wormwood’s hold, and readjusted her clothes.

One last look in the mirror. Black and white corset, patterned long brown skirt, exaggerated make-up, angel-curled hair.

It was time to go to work.

As she left her room, Wormwood followed her out, and up the stairs all the way to the stairwell on the fourth floor that emerged near the town.
“Well, my love, I’ll see you in the morning.” She went to kiss Wormwood goodbye, but Wormwood pulled back with a smile.

“You can wait to give your goodbye a little longer.” She grinned, “I’m coming with you, at least to the brothel.”

Khat knitted her eyebrows together.

“What? Why?”

“I’m going to hide out for a while in the backstreets of the town.” She said, as casually as if she had said she were going to the kitchen for an evening snack. She strolled on up the stairs ahead of Khat, “I’m going to see for myself the truth of what Mistletoe is saying.”

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