“We’ll send out a search party for her!” Hellebore cried, pacing the room, eyes filled to bursting with worry. “We’ll send out the entire orphanage, we’re bound to find her!”
“It’s been one day.” Tea grumbled. “Give it more time.”
Part of him hoped that Poppy wasn’t come back since her disappearance the day before, one week since their night-time talk.
“More time?” Hellebore gasped, flustered, “Tea, it’s dangerous out there, and she’s just a young girl!”
“She’s older than you,” He raised an eyebrow at her, “Stop worrying so much, mother goose.”
Bluebottle sat quietly beside him on the living room floor as Hellebore went off with a frustrated sigh to find others to help her.
She was staring absently at the worn-down chair, so she startled with a yelp when Tea spoke to her.
“What do you think about this?”
“Huh?” She rubbed the corners of her eyes, blinked, and looked at him as though he was alien. “What do I…? Well, I… I think…”
“She’s not been gone long enough to worry?” He suggested.
“Yes!” Bluebottle used his words far too obviously. “Yes, she’s not been gone long enough to worry. I think.”
“I know you do.” Tea huffed a laugh, then put on a thoughtful face. “We are so in sync.”
Bluebottle blushed slightly before playing along.
“Naturally, my friend!” She shuffled closer, though she hadn’t left much space between them before, “But, Tea, I have the feeling they are trying to pull us apart!”
“Oh!” He cried melodramatically, “Whatever shall we do if they separate us?”
“Let us run away, my love!” Bluebottle wiped non-existant tears from her eyes, and then embraced him wholeheartedly, “They cannot pull us apart then!”
She detached herself and flopped onto his lap as they both laughed; Tea braided her hair contentedly as they dropped back into comfortable silence.
The morning was warm and the dawn sun was lighting the room without the help of candles.
Tea ignored Bluebottle’s oak-coloured eyes, staring up at him in admiration as he fiddled with her raven strands, pretending to focus on his work.
He wasn’t particularly bothered by her oh-so-apparent adoration of him, but more so by the fear of what she would do if she knew he could never love her, and that he would never want to.
His face must have creased in thought, because her look grew questioning; he began to wiggle his fingers around the back of her ear, moving quickly down her waist so that she began to chortle loudly, concern dismissed.
“Stop messing around!” Hellebore was back, fuming at the door, “We’re going out.”
“To find the ugly duckling, mother goose?”
“We are going out.”
Exchanging a mere glance, the two rose. Feeling particularly light-hearted, Tea extended an arm to Bluebottle, and she linked hers around the crook of his elbow, clearly delighted.
Together they strolled out after Hellebore, and half of the other children from the orphanage.
“We’re splitting into pairs.” Hellbore declared from the front of the group, “We’ll cover more ground and find Poppy that way.”
“Oh! Oh!” Tea waved his free hand in the air, feigning childish excitement, Bluebottle bounced beside him, playing along, “Me and Bluebottle! Me and Bluebottle!”
Hellebore seemed fit to burst, face turning an angry shade of red, but she conceded, and pointed them down to the lower part of the Weed Pit, which was bordered by the forest in which he had originally found Poppy.
They skipped off, just to add a spark to the flame, but Hellebore had turned away to organise everyone else.
Underneath their feet the cobbles grew more and more worn and unkempt, weeds sprouting through the cracks – pretty in their own winding way, dotting with little 4-petal-flowers of blue and purple and white. As they strolled through them they kicked them up.
The streets were only just coming to life, Hellebore having woken everyone early in the morning with her fretting; the pair, as well as the rest of the orphanage, had found themselves rudely awakened by horrified screaming of ‘She’s not back yet! She’s not back yet!’
“With Rue on her mind as well, she must be going mad.” Bluebottle had mumbled, then had glanced nervously at Tea, as though worried he had heard. He had acted as though he hadn’t.
The worry for Poppy was suffocating him – since their conversation he had bitter about her, avoiding her at all costs, ignoring the knocks on the door the following nights, as persistent as they were.
Then she had disappeared, and he would not have cared had it not been for the fuss.
Out in the somewhat-fresh air of the Weed Pit, blue sky stretching forever overhead, Tea felt released and relaxed, even with Bluebottle clinging onto his arm.
They made little attempts to search for Poppy, winding down back alleys, where the people grew crooked and the houses leaned, where the hill began to rise, view obstructed by sudden cliffs every few metres. Bluebottle made more effort than Tea, actually craning her neck to look down passages as they passed them.
It was as the sun began to crawl over the trees in the east that he realised a little voice was crying from a way off.
Tea caught it through the building crowd, gathering for the market.
“Tea?” It shouted. For a moment, he stopped to consider responding, but then decided against it – the day was pleasant, and voices in crowds could mean trouble. But Bluebottle thought otherwise.
“Is that Wormwood?” She mumbled, rising on her tip-toes to try and see over everyone.
“She can’t come down here on her own.” He tried to rationalise and get them moving again, but, for once, Bluebottle was adamant about her own thoughts.
“I think it’s Wormwood!” Her eyes widened, she cupped her hands around her mouth, “Wormwood!”
“Bluebottle!” The little girl cried, and barrelled into the back of Tea’s knees, knocking him to the ground, moaning about the pain. “Tea!”
Wormwood was on her feet, hair wild, eyes ringed with red and slightly swollen, as though she had been upset.
“I ran all the way down from my house!” She said, excited, rubbing her eyes slightly with little hands, “I ran all the way, and my face got all sweaty and red!”
“Okay, mite.” Tea sighed, easing himself back to standing.
“Where are you going?” Wormwood’s voice was alive with curiosity, she looked around, “I goed to your home, but you wasn’t there, so I ran around to find you.”
“Why aren’t you at home?” Bluebottle asked, leaning down to Wormwood’s level.
“I don’t want to be at home.” Wormwood pouted, crossing her arms. “Where are you going? Can I come?”
Tea and Bluebottle exchanged a look again, and then Tea shrugged and reached one hand to her. Bluebottle linked with his other one again.
She beamed and took his hand.
As they walked she went on about her birthday coming in two months, and how her brother was always playing with his ‘sheeps’ and never wanted to play with her, and how he was called Ragwort – and did they already know that? - but her aunty and uncle had started to call him ‘Abonsam’ when they spoke to one another.
“I don’t know what it means,” She admitted, with a shrug, “But I like it, it sounds nice.”
Near the very base of the hill, the Weed Pit was quiet, all the children and homeless people from the other night disappeared into alleyways or the trees, and the residents – those that were able to find employment with the little skills they had - were using the long days of midsummer to work extra hours in hopes of a raise on their meagre living. Some would be sleeping, having realised that the Gardeners didn’t seem to care about the area; so as long as they stayed quiet about it, they could stay in whichever home they pleased so long as they could break in, even if they couldn’t afford it.
Tea always thought it was a vicious cycle – the unskilled weeds remain unemployed, and so remain unskilled, except in the arts of deception and thievery, and who was going to employ someone with such untrustworthy skills?
The Gardener’s and the Roses called the Weeds useless, but never gave them opportunity to improve themselves.
Tea came from off the hill. As farm owners, and employers – people who always had enough money to pay for extravagant things, such as expeditions far away- Tea’s family could have, by all rights, been Roses themselves, esteemed and respected, but they didn’t get involved in the class system and Tea had never really felt a part of it.
Wormwood was a Rose – a rose of Roses; her family was directly involved in government; her grandfather was a Gardener, and her father was still waiting to take his place on his death, and her brother would do the same. Guaranteed.
It wasn’t illegal for women to be Gardeners, nor was it unheard of, but usually a male heir meant the removal of the women from possible positions as Gardeners. Daughters of Gardeners often became members of the herbicide or pesticide, but many of them seemed to disappear into thin air – you’d hear rumours about their employment, but the place and position were unnamed and unspoken of.
Though there was a family of Roses prestigious for their strong female Gardeners: The roles in the Vasca family were a complete reversal of usual occurrences; not only were they famous for that, but also for their pale blonde hair, allowing them to remain in such high positions of power, despite their dark skin, which usually – and unjustly- made interviewers turn new Gardener applicants away. However, Tea had only ever heard say of the family.
Tea laughed shortly and derisively at the thought. Bluebottle watched him with a wrinkle on her nose. He shrugged off her questioning gaze with a smile and a shake of his head.
“Look!” Wormwood cried suddenly, pointing wildly with her stubby finger.
Two dogs were tucked into a corner, busy. Patchy black fur brushed rapidly at greasy blonde fur, up and down, up and down.
“How romantic.” Tea chuckled.
“It reminds me of my early childhood,” Bluebottle feigned overwhelming nostalgia. Tea wrapped his other arm around her as she leant harder on him, fake tears in her eyes, “How I miss waking up the sight! And how dreamy the sound…” She panted rapidly in imitation. Her fathers used to run a shelter for strays, Tea recalled her saying.
“One day, we shall move where you can see it again, and watch the sight together!” He cried.
They broke into laughter, each imitating noises the dogs made, until an excited Wormwood made a noise that certainly had not come from the dogs.
The pair stared in horror as the little girl grinned at them, proud of how she’d copied the sound from the ‘lavishly decorated establishment’ they had ended up beside.
The building went as far as lavish went in the Weed Pit – flowers hung from the walls, mostly belladonna to signify what it was:
“It’s the middle of the day.” Tea muttered, face scrunched in bewilderment.
“Maybe it’s a Ro-?” Bluebottle started, but glanced down at Wormwood tentatively mid-sentence and cut off.
“What is it?” She asked, eyes wide with curiosity and too much innocence.
“A brothel.” Tea replied, simply.
Usually, a girl her age in the Weed Pit would know, probably better than would be morally right.
But Wormwood was a Rose. Wormwood was ‘pure’.
And the very idea captivated Tea, that he may be able to squander that purity in the daughter of a Gardener, a quiet rebellion against the prejudice that they produced with thier laws.
It sent him close to laughter, but he contained it.
“Do you want to go in?” His grin was devious.
For a moment, Bluebottle’s jaw dropped open, but very quickly it snapped shut again, as she hesitantly caught on.
What happens in there is only natural, Tea’s conscience began to justify his plan, It’s not like it could damage her.
He put his hand on Wormwood’s shoulder and started forward; Bluebottle moved slowly to take up position by the other shoulder, moving as though against her own will, and then…
A scream rattled from within the building that wasn’t old enough to be there. Someone roared with rage. The whole of the building turned into a container of yelps and fear.
A tiny figure stumbled from the back of it moments later, fleeing past the startled dogs. She leapt a foot as she saw the group, and froze, eyes wide with pure terror.
She couldn’t have been older than Wormwood, her lip was busted, bleeding; her eyebrow broken by a ring mark, barely hidden by ginger angel-curls; a large welt swelled and bruised on her arm.
In less than ten seconds she regained herself and flew deep into the forest.
In a hurried patter, Wormwood disappeared after her.
The brothel was still ringing with suspense, the presence of it suffocating.
Heaviness filled the air, the world seemed to blacken.
The woods seemed to convulse, alive, and awoke with groans.
The forest was a mass of dying yew trees, corpses at their roots.
Bluebottle gasped, body shaking. Tea dragged his eyes from the scene and saw recognition flooding hers.
For the first time, he wondered if she had seen this, too. Was Bluebottle one of the lives that his guide to the orphanage had said he was connected to? Did she guide Bluebottle there, too, when her fathers were taken?
“Bluebottle.” He grabbed her shoulders, shook her, but she couldn’t turn her eyes away, and his shaking was sluggish.
“Those trees.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “Tea, those trees… I saw them, when they… when they… my dads, Tea. Daddy and Papa, are they there?”
“Turn away.” Tea demanded, even as he was drawn to them himself. He tried desperately to turn her to face him, but his limbs were growing heavy.
He finally managed to force her against his chest, when the door of the brothel slammed open with a crash that broke the silence
A Rose stumbled out, hands thick and sticky with red, rings stained copper. His eyes connected with Tea’s, and Tea’s bones grew cold.
The world sped up instantly around them.
“Run.” He whispered, taking hold of her hand, “Into the trees.”
Fear squeezed his heart as much as hers, but she didn’t resist his pull, and he pushed forward until the man could no longer see them for the shadows of the forest.
A few minutes could have been hours as they wandered through the forest, losing themselves between the trees, searching for Wormwood, but somehow just ending up back at the street.
Tea thought he should know these woods, but the part he had grown up exploring was a mile away from the city, a whole other world where the trees didn’t seem so haggard and broken, and it wasn’t so easy to end up lost or in trouble.
“Do you think we should split up to find her?” Bluebottle was looking warily about her, clinging ever tighter to Tea. Tea didn’t believe she’d be okay splitting up. He wasn’t sure he would be, either.
“At this point,” He swallowed the feeling of panic gnawing at his mind, “She’s probably made her own way out.”
But he didn’t really believe that, as much as he repeated it to himself.
“Maybe we should just go back to the street and go home.” He suggested.
“We can’t leave her in here.” Bluebottle mumbled, “I mean, that would mean trouble for us… wouldn’t it?”
Tea sighed, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
“I guess so.” He thought about Hellebore yelling at them when she found out, and about the Astera family sending out investigators and search parties when they realised their daughter was missing – probably already rushing around the city – and people connecting this disappearance to the two teens she was seen with.
After searching aimlessly for over an hour without finding the little girl, Bluebottle was clearly on the verge of panic – breathing rapidly, digging her nails into his arm, chewing her thumb nail.
“Wormwood?” She called again, but her voice was getting weaker, “Wormwood?”
“Th-the little girls are o-over th-that way.”
The two jumped at the voice, and were astonished to see Poppy, clinging to a dying tree that had clearly planted splinters all along the arm she was grabbing it with.
Her skin was pallor, and her eyes seemed unfocused. Her legs shook as though she was afraid.
“Th-the little girl s-saw th-them.” Her breathing was ragged, “She-She s-saw th-them.”
Without another word, she pointed off into the trees ahead, and Tea thought he could hear voices, but only very faintly, unnoticeable unless you knew they were supposed to be there.
He wondered if he was only imagining it.
“Tea.” Bluebottle looked up at him and detached herself from his arm. “Um… I’ll help Poppy, you go and help the little girls.”
His eyebrows rose in surprise. Bluebottle telling him what to do was unusual.
“Okay.” He nodded, “I’ll meet you back at the orphanage.”
He watched Bluebottle wrap Poppy’s arm around her awkwardly, struggling with the half-a-head difference between their heights – Poppy being taller than Bluebottle -, and then set out back to the street before setting off himself.
About 100 metres further in, he finally stumbled across Wormwood and the little girl from the brothel.
She was even smaller than Wormwood, but had the steely look to her eyes that no Rose girl could ever truly get. The girl’s body tensed as she saw Tea first, and she jumped to her feet, ginger curls flying about her head, loosening.
“Calm down,” Tea tried to soothe, but he found his voice just came out like a demand, “I’m not here to hurt you.”
Wormwood turned around then, bright smile plastered on her face.
“Tea!” She cried joyfully, “You found us! This is Khat, she lives at the brothel!”
She stood up and reached a hand out to Khat, who looked at it timidly, but then took it. Wormwood’s smile just grew.
“Her mummy controls the brothel.” She explained, “And-”
“Do you have to talk for her, or can she explain herself?” Tea queried.
“Well… I guess she can, but…”
“I’m Tea.” He knelt down beside her grudgingly, feeling that was what he had to do to make her feel more comfortable – that was what he had seen others do around very small, nervous children. “Who are you?”
The little girl looked at the floor, and then back up at him, making eye contact.
“Khat.” She murmured. “Khat Celastra.”
“And how old are you?”
She rubbed her nose with a sniffle and held up three skinny fingers.
“What were you doing in the brothel that made the man hit you?”
She blinked at him, then shrugged and shifted her weight.
“You don’t know?”
“Mum says not to interrupt when she’s working.”
“You walked in when she was… working… with that man?”
“Do you want to go back?”
She shook her head.
“Do you want to come with us?”
“I want to go with Wormwood.” She whispered, glancing at Wormwood, whose grin just wouldn’t stop.
“You can’t.” He said bluntly, “They wouldn’t accept you at her house.”
“They would!” Wormwood huffed, hands on her hips in protest, “I would tell them to!”
“You could come to the orphanage.” Tea ignored Wormwood. “We see Wormwood a lot there.”
“I visit lots!” Wormwood cried, “But you’d see me more at my house.”
“Do you want to come with me and stay at the orphanage?”
Again, the little girl shrugged.
Relieved to be off his knees, Tea finally rose, and extended one hand each to the two little girls.
Wormwood grabbed one eagerly, but Khat refused, only taking Wormwood’s hand when she reached out.
“We’ll go and explain to your mum first.” Tea told them sternly, “And then we’ll go.”
Slowly, they stumbled their way through the woods over roots and stones, until they managed to emerge into the sunlight again by the brothel.