The streets were threatening to overflow, the number of people was so large that many of them had either taken refuge in the alleys until it cleared some, or were still struggling through and apologising prolifically as they fell into another stall.
Tea and Bluebottle had been unfortunate enough to have an over-eager four-year-old to drag them into the fray.
“Oh!” Wormwood cried with delight, “That stall wasn’t there last time!”
She pointed frantically at a stall illuminated by thousands of brightly-coloured glass beads that reflected the dim sunlight, and tugged hard at Tea’s hand.
“We’re going to die in here.” Tea said, matter-of-factly, then sniffed the air deeply, “You can already smell the dead who have been crushed against the walls.”
“Well we’re going to have to stick close, then.” Bluebottle wrapped her arms tightly around Tea and chuckled.
“We’ll just be crushed together now.” Tea snorted back, smirking.
“Let the kid be free!” Bluebottle gasped, “We will survive this together!”
“You’re right.” He replied, putting his arm around Bluebottle’s shoulder tenderly, “Sacrifices must be made!”
“Tea!” A little voice cried, dragging the two out of their joke. Wormwood was looking at them with a wrinkled nose, but when she got his attention it disappeared and she turned back to the stand. “Tea, look at this man’s arm-picture!”
The stall keeper was a large gentleman with a squashed nose who hid himself under a large cloak, further concealed by the orange light through the cloth tarpaulin of the stall, but Tea could make out the outline of well-exercised muscle beneath the fabric. For a moment he lost his footing, but then he noticed the man’s dark-lipped scowl at Wormwood’s curious eyes, the honey-coloured skin just visible on his fingers, and the black line hiding in the shade of his sleeve. Wormwood had noticed, too.
She was speaking rapidly, crying at the man to show her again.
“Oi!” Tea called, stumbling to Wormwood with Bluebottle still wrapped around his waist. Firmly, he grabbed her hand and tried to tug her away, but she refused to budge, pulling against his insistent grip.
“No!” She yelled, “Look! Look! I’ve never seen skin that colour before! His voice is all funny, too! Listen! Speak, man, speak!”
“Wormwood.” Bluebottle hissed beside Tea, under her breath, giving the man an apologetic look and glancing around in panic. She had removed herself from Tea’s waist and was trying to help him move Wormwood. “Be quiet.”
“No!” She screeched again, trying to dig her nails into their hands, “Show him your arm-picture!”
The thudding of hurried footsteps rang through the crowd as their attention was drawn in horror to the little girl, and they froze.
The man seemed confused, looking frantically at the scene of wide-eyes settled on him. They feared for him. He attempted to pull his sleeve down over the pentagram tattoo on his arm, picking up on the blood draining from their faces, and attempted to break into the crowd, meaning to flee.
The footsteps multiplied, coming from alley ways, where people started to yell, pushed into stone as other people heaved through them.
“Oh, no...” Tea muttered, trying to drag them further away, but the crowd wouldn’t move; both the three and the man were trapped on their spots, and their eyes found one another. “Oh, no... Oh, no...”
Around them the crowd began to break and gasp, and eventually broke to reveal five men in green outfits emblazoned with a ring of holly.
“The herbicidide?” Wormwood asked quietly, face creased in confusion, “Mummy told me they’re good guys. They protect us.”
“Wormwood, be quiet, look away.” Bluebottle tried to turn her away and push into the crowd as the herbicide forced the man to the mud-caked cobbles, but she resisted, staring at the man as his hood fell down and his darker skin was revealed, decorated with ink all around his shaved head - pagan symbols. Tea tried to break people apart so they could escape, pushing between two people, and then two more, hoping for anyone to give in and let them through.
“Why do they want that man?” Wormwood asked. “Why do they want that man?”
“Move, Wormwood.” Tea snapped.
The man had started to yell, body convulsing against something the herbicide had forced into his mouth. His accent sounded unfamiliar. Tea bit his lip as the man screamed, and jumped at a couple, causing them to split for a moment. He dove into the gap. Behind him, Bluebottle flinched at the cries of the man, and scooped Wormwood up into her arms.
As they found another crack and struggled through it, Wormwood was transfixed, staring into the crowd long after they had lost the stall-keeper behind the terrified mass.
Tea was breathing heavily by the time they broke out of the crowd, and Bluebottle gasped a few feet ahead of him.
“Bluebottle!” Tea gulped for air, slowing down, heart squeezed painfully tight from exertion, “Bluebottle!”
Bluebottle kept running.
“Bluebottle. Stop.” Tea demanded again, and she slowly ground to a halt, catching her breath with broken wheezes. “You need to put the kid down now, she can get home on her own. We need to leave before we’re seen with a Rose kid and people come for us, too.”
With weary eyes she glanced at Wormwood, who stared back with a wide-eyed gaze.
“Mite.” Tea breathed, as Bluebottle reluctantly started to put Wormwood down “Go straight home.”
She nodded slowly, gripping tightly to Bluebottle’s hand.
“I’ll tell daddy...” She said, starting to run home, panic tensing her muscles and slowing her down, “I’ll tell him they’re silly.”
“Wormwood, don’t. You need to lie.” Tea bit his lip. “Your mummy’s probably told you it’s wrong, but you have to lie. You weren’t with anyone today, okay? You never saw the man.”
With the last instruction the two teens dove behind the buildings and out of the little girl’s sight, hurrying back to the orphanage.
Bluebottle looked back with every step.
They practically fell through the door, wheezing and gripping their chests, landing side by side on their knees.
After a couple of minutes an irritated face appeared around the door.
“What did you do this time?” Hellebore demanded, clearly trying to force herself to be more confident.
When they looked up at her, their desolate stares drew the anger from her; she hurried to help them up and led them through to the kitchen. It was small, far too small for over 30 kids, and this was evident - white floor-tiles were cracked and scraped beyond hope of them looking clean ever again, there were month-old stains decorating the walls, the windows had been boarded and re-boarded.
“In the market...” Tea shattered the silence after it had lingered, heavy, for several long minutes. “... a man was taken by the herbicide. It was... Wormwood drew their attention. He wasn’t from here... he didn’t worship the gardener’s god, she didn’t understand, she started shouting...”
“Why do they do such things?” Bluebottle murmured, but not like she knew the answer.
“When did the Edenists start to become so prominent?” Tea grumbled, thinking back, “It wasn’t like this before, was it?”
They sat in silence, thinking. Tea was sure there was a time foreigners were welcomed into town openly, invited to share their beliefs. When did that change? Tea couldn’t remember.
Had it been so gradual?
“Do you think… if we hadn’t met Wormwood today…?” Bluebottle began, hesitantly.
“Rue told you to stop.” Hellebore rasped, unsure about her own words.
“It wouldn’t have mattered.” Tea tried to stress the thought, “It wouldn’t. If she hadn’t seen him someone else would have, the wrong person, they would have called. It couldn’t be avoided. The herbicide would have come for him.”
“It doesn’t make it okay.” Bluebottle’s voice was barely more than a whisper.
“No.” Tea settled himself very close to her, arm around her shoulder. “No, it doesn’t.”