Ada and the girl emerged from the alleyway and into the hazy rush of a morning market. The main street was bustling now, and the strung-up bells chattered together like fettered songbirds. In the square, wooden stalls were shrouded with strips of cloth, and wheeling carts were stacked high with books and teetering boxes. The air was spiced with cinnamon, which was so rare to smell in Little Crestbury that it tingled Ada's nose.
The girl led the way, marching down the cobblestones as though she had not been sprawled upon them five minutes earlier. She kept her fingers clasped around Ada's, like five tiny tethers fastening her to the earth. Still a little numb, Ada said, "Slow down. That man in the alley, did he hurt you?"
"Nu'uh," replied the girl.
"What—" Ada broke off, considering whether to reword her question. "What did he want with you?"
The girl sniffed, creasing the skin across her stout nose. "They're always doing stuff like that. I just shouldn't've gone out without Papa this morning, that's all."
At that, the girl tugged Ada along more quickly, ducking between the crowds in a practised pathway. The city folk flittered around the square like moths drawn to matchsticks, bustling this way and that. Their clothes were stitched from thin fabrics, often in earthen tones that blended with the stonework. Long skirts swirled across the ground with hems stained a sooty black, while coarse tunics cinched in the sleeves of cotton shirts.
There were few who wore fabrics as rich as the velvet of Ada's cloak, though she didn't stand out as many people had hoods pulled up to cover their faces. One woman rushed past Ada, the pattering of her footsteps quick and nimble as she kept her eyes fixed on the cobblestones. Then an elderly man scuttled by with a shawl dragged low across his head, unidentifiable were it not for the wrinkles that marked his arthritic fingers.
The girl pulled Ada past them all, even as her boots caught on crates piled with fruit, and an apple bounced down and began rolling away. Ada went to grab it, but her hood slipped and she stumbled to a halt trying to keep it in place.
"Min!" The loud voice parted a group of men on their left. "You stop right there, young lady."
The girl's nose wrinkled up again as she untangled her fingers from Ada's. Smoothing down the front of her smock, she turned with a smile arranged sweetly on her face.
Ada stood a careful few paces away, watching as a woman barreled her way through the city folk with the force of a seafront storm. She was dressed in the plain fashion of the market peddlers, though her clothes were covered by a ragged apron stitched from a dozen different strips of fabric. Wool was sewn next to silk, and faded dyes spread between knottings of thread.
"Ms Armestrong," said the girl, rocking on her toes.
"Don't try playing sweet with me, Min. I saw you sneaking off across the square this morning. Mark my words, one of these days your father and you'll be paying a hefty price for your little trips down past the canal." The woman's cheeks were ruddy in her round face. "You didn't even stop by for your powder this morning, and don't you think I'll be following you up to the Este Lyceum, no sir."
She rummaged around beneath a strip of purple linen that was patched as a pocket onto her apron. Then she stopped, and her eyes slowly lifted, searching the crowds that milled around the three of them. Ada shifted, wishing she had taken a moment to at least adjust her hood. But each time the woman's eyes passed her, they glazed over, as though she were trying to peer through the murky depths of a fish tank filled with pond water.
Seemingly satisfied, Ms Armestrong removed her fisted hand, her other fingers darting out to catch the child's and easily enveloping them. She dropped a canvas pouch, tied at the top with string, and no larger than a coin purse. Ada peered closer, but a moment later the girl had smuggled the pouch away into her pocket.
Ms Armestrong sighed, wiping her hands down her apron. "And don't think I haven't noticed you trying to hide those scraped up knees. Just... take care of yourself, hm?"
The girl nodded, her flowery grin wilting away as the woman placed a palm on her shoulder. She frowned, opening her mouth as if to speak again, before thinking better of it.
"Off with you then." She ruffled the girl's hair into a greater mess of tangles. "Greet your father for me."
"I will," said the girl, but Ms Armestrong was already marching off. She waved one hand brusquely ahead of her, and people dodged out of her path as she strode around a stall of glass phials, and then disappeared from view.
The girl didn't move, gazing after Ms Armestrong for a long while as the humming crowds whirled around her. She looked so small and alone that Ada almost reached out for her, but then she suddenly turned and grinned up at her, as though she had forgotten she had been standing there.
"No time to dawdle," said the girl, grabbing Ada's hand again. She scampered onwards, knocking over a stack of leather-bound books that almost fell on Ada's feet. But the dealer caught them, with a mutter cast sourly in their direction.
The city folk thinned out as they reached the outskirts of the market, as few vendors had set up so far from the main street. The merchants here were noticeably older than the ones who had been jostling together within the centre of the square, their eyes cast low and lined with age. They stooped behind stands that were laden with oddities; cracked bowls overflowing with bone shards, and maps stitched together with fragments of frayed ribbons.
Ada almost bumped into the girl when she halted in front of a parked caravan. Its buttery yellow paint stood out between the splintering stands, and by its ramshackle steps was an oak table, three of its legs teetering on the cobblestones and a fourth held up by a notebook stuffed with paper scraps. On the table were heaps of herbs and dried flowers, one mountain merging into the next and hiding the strips of peeling wood below.
The girl had freed Ada's hand to wriggle under the table, and she popped up on the other side just as the caravan doors burst open. A man tripped over a pile of damp nettles as he clambered out, but a smile bloomed across his face at the sight of the child. He didn't notice Ada as he dropped an armful of lavender, florets sticking to his shirt as he hoisted his hands under the little girl's arms and lifted her into the air.
"Min, my girl! I was beginning to wonder where you'd scampered off to."