Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Mica and Ben leave the Haven in the Empty Places and head east to find Anda. But it’s a long way to Windrose City, and Ben’s bad leg will slow them down. They plan to steal a transport, but things don’t go as planned. Ben mind-controls two people during their theft, leaving Mica to wonder who and what her brother has become. She questions him about his new and strange abilities, but Ben is reluctant to talk about them, saying she already knows the answer: he is Perseus…
Fields. For as far as the eye could see. If she hadn’t seen the mountains, she probably wouldn’t have believed they even existed. Mica grew up in fields, of course, big, golden, waving fields. But they’d been driving for what felt like an eternity, and she’d seen nothing but fields and plains and sky. She was beginning to believe the entire country was nothing but corn and grass and blue, spotted with the occasional clump of trees.
Ben drove until the transport ran out of gas, but the Novan landscape remained unchanged. Mica pushed the now useless transport into a small cluster of trees, out of sight of the road. Ben directed and guided her, told her to put some back into it, and steered the transport into the woods. They hefted their packs and then walked until they came to another village. There they found a nearly empty military barracks. They waited until the soldiers were preoccupied with dinner and stole food and water from their stores. They also stole a fresh non-military transport from a nearby farm and then continued their journey.
Mica rummaged around in the front of the transport and found a gun under the driver’s seat. This was not a civilian gun, but a sleek, black, military-issued weapon. She wondered how a farmer managed to get something so lethal and illegal. She wrapped her fingers around the cold metal and, when Ben’s head was turned, slid the weapon into her boot. Ben might have strange powers to keep him safe, but now Mica could protect herself too.
Eventually, the terrain changed from fields and squares of barren ground to rolling grass and wildness and low hills. They got closer and closer to the capital, and the designations for cities and towns and villages got smaller and smaller. They passed a sign for West Thirty-Two. West Twenty-One. West Nine.
Mica watched the faded West Six sign flash past. Her foot eased up off the gas, remembering her own West Six (West 10,996) was hundreds of miles behind them.
“There’s nothing left,” Ben said. He stared out the window. His face turned away from Mica. “The smell of it… they just left it like that. Burning and rotting.”
“I shouldn’t have…” she said but couldn’t finish.
“I shouldn’t have…. if I hadn’t set those fires—”
“That wasn’t your fault, Mica. They came to West Six for me. They were looking for Perseus, so they burned it. They were looking for me, not you. Okay?”
She nodded, but she didn’t believe him. Of course, it was her fault. She accelerated and left West Six behind as fast as she could. Somewhere far behind them, the smoke had long since settled and faded, but Mica felt as though she could still feel the sting in her eyes and smell the burning town. She could feel the sweat from that day running down her face, or maybe she just felt her own sorrow trickling down her cheeks.
“What do we do when we get to West One?” she asked and rubbed the back of her hand over her face, wiping the tears away. “How do we get into the city?”
“We find someone named Styx. Styx works with the Unseen and can get us into the city.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Hannah told me.”
“Of course she did.”
“There’s an Inn. Styx works out of the bar.”
“Hey, if he can get us into Windrose, I’ll go wherever,” Ben said.
“He can get us past the Wall?” Mica shifted. They both knew the stories about the Windrose City Wall, and they both feared it. As children, Viola had scarred them with stories about people trying to get out of, or into, Windrose by going over the Wall. Mica could still see Viola as if she was right in front of her, lines of dirt and grime streaking her puckered and wrinkled face, smelling like damp grass and yeasty bread.
“You heard what happened to the man who ran away from Loraine?” Viola had asked.
Four-year-old Mica shook her head and stared up at the old woman.
“He tried to sneak over the Wall. And Loraine turned him inside out.” Mica squealed and covered her face, peeking out between her fingers at the grinning woman in front of her. “He split open and flipped inside out!”
It had always been something new when Viola had told the story—inside out, fried, burned to a crisp, mashed to a pulp, exploded. Mica had never gotten the same story out of Viola twice, and somehow they always seemed like cooking stories gone horribly wrong. But every once and a while, someone else would turn up and confirm the tall tales. Someone who had seen the body or had smelled the sizzling flesh would pop up and say they had known the poor bastard who had tried to jump the Wall. May he rest in peace.
But then the Watchers had come, and Mica had grown up. And Viola had stopped telling stories. But Mica believed the stories. So did Ben.
“Styx will get us past the Wall,” Ben said.
“You better be right.” But she had other questions she didn’t want to ask. She sat quietly, thinking, wondering how to broach the subject.
“What?” Ben asked.
“So? I’m allowed.”
“You’re never quiet. What’s on your mind?”
She didn’t like the thoughtful way he smiled at her, and irritation bubbled in the back of her throat. “What are we going to do about your limp?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
His limp was a liability. A ticking time bomb. Someone would ask about it. Soldiers would stop them and ask what was wrong with him. And he didn’t have papers from his doctor saying it was just a broken leg. Nothing more. No one limped in Windrose.
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
“And if soldiers stop you, then what?”
Ben rubbed his hand through his beard. “I’ll take care of it, promise,” Ben said, but Mica didn’t believe him.
The next morning, the smokestacks of West One blossomed small and pale on the horizon like dandelion puffs. As they got closer, the billows of smoke rolled over the rising sun, which lit them from behind, making the heavy clouds glow. Mica slowed and looked for a place to hide the transport, and they ditched it out of sight of the road in a cluster of trees and continued on foot, slowly. West One appeared on the distant horizon, a city of metal and smoke and dust.
West One was a large city in its’ own right, yet it was a leech of a city. Like a cancer, West One grew on the side of Windrose City, and people and goods flowed between the two cities like blood. West One held the largest processing centers for Burners in the country and served as a security point for travelers entering Windrose. All travel in and out of Windrose went through the West One processing center by the main gate at the Wall on the city’s east side. The Wall which circled the city.
Once inside West One, they couldn’t linger. With their packs, they stood out as travelers, and without travel papers, they would be considered illegal travelers. After dark, they would probably be stopped by a guard demanding to see their papers and identification cards—Mica and Ben had neither. This would have to be a quick visit.
Mica tried not to stare up at the archway to the city, which read West One in iron stenciled against the sun. Together they got lost in the crowd entering the city. The people around them, hazy and hollow-eyed, shuffled them into West One, where the shadows melted into the bright and the hot and the city. As they passed under the metal and through the city’s open gates, Mica tried to slow her heart and breathe deeply, but the air around her felt dirty.
On the other side of the gate, Mica blinked. She tried to orient herself discretely—the last thing she wanted was to stand out. The streets pulsed like veins. Transports and people flowed like blood from one place to another, gathering and pooling at intersections only to rush forward to stop again.
“Where to?” she asked, looking down at the sidewalk. People stepped around them, anxious at the pause in the ever-moving stream of bodies.
“Follow me,” Ben said quietly and began limping down the street.
They fell into step with the crowd and marched forward. They walked south through markets and past inns and taverns, dusty and smoky and grimy. Mica was used to walking, but she wasn’t used to these crowds. The faces and hands and shoulders pushing past her and around her and nudging her along wore her nerves down. Like a constant low burn, she felt her nerves slowly frying from the heat and energy and life radiating off the people around her despite the cold weather.
Up ahead, a cluster of soldiers stopped people. Ben slowed, watching the green-clad soldiers. Mica realized it was a checkpoint and froze.
“Keep walking,” Ben said softly. “Don’t stop. This way.” He turned suddenly and made for a deserted alley.
Mica followed, willing herself not to look back at the checkpoint and the soldiers. The alley stank, but at least there weren’t any soldiers asking for papers. She wanted to breathe deeply, but the scent of garbage and urine stung her nose.
They only got halfway down the alley, past dumpsters and trash cans and rotting crates.
“You, stop,” a voice behind them said.
Panic fizzled on the back of Mica’s neck and her ears and her fingers.
“Keep moving,” Ben said and pushed her along with his good arm.
“You, with the crutch—stop!”
Ben stopped and turned. “Yes?”
Mica turned and found a very tall and thin soldier staring down at them. Her eyes were sunken, and her nose so pinched Mica wondered if she could breathe through it. Like all soldiers, her eyes had that hazy, glassy look.
“What happened to your leg,” the soldier said.
Ben grimaced. It was convincing. “Broken. Going to the doctor now.”
The soldier looked them both up and down. “How far is this doctor?” she asked, but her eyes settled on their packs. “Papers,” she said and held out a hand.
Mica looked to Ben. She shifted from foot to foot, unsure if they should run or fight or what. The gun from the transport was still in her boot, but she didn’t want to risk gunshots here. Not in the middle of a city, not with a checkpoint full of soldiers just down the block. Maybe Ben could handle this, but Ben only smiled at the woman, and Mica knew they were done for. They wouldn’t convince this pinched-nose soldier, and they didn’t have time for this. Mica knew what they had to do.
“Of course, of course, let me dig those out for you. We’re traveling to see our aunt. She’s been sick herself, and when I fell and—”
Mica moved before he could finish, rushing the soldier and slamming her shoulder into the woman’s chest. They hit the ground and rolled behind a dumpster. Mica sent her fists into the woman’s face over and over again, her training with Rebekah coming back to her like a burst of flame. But the soldier was strong and caught Mica’s wrists after only a few hits, forcing her hands away from her bloodied face. Mica thrashed wildly, and the soldier lost her grip on her wrists.
“Ben, go!” she cried, jumping up to run.
Ben stood behind her, leaning on his crutch, and his eyes glowed bright blue-green.
“What—” Mica looked back to the soldier and saw her eyes glowing blue-green just like Ben’s.
“Cuff her,” Ben said, still staring at the woman. The woman reached to her belt and held her cuffs out to Mica.
“I don’t under—”
“Mica. Cuff the soldier,” Ben said, raising his voice as much as he could without shouting.
With shaking hands, Mica cuffed the soldier’s hands behind her back.
“Her belt, take out the blue darts.”
Mica fumbled with the darts at the woman’s belt and dropped them to the ground. She swore but managed to grab one before it rolled away and held it up.
“In her arm. Now, quick.”
Mica uncapped the needle and jammed it into the soldier’s arm. The glow faded from the woman’s eyes, peace passed over her face, and she slumped to the ground. Mica looked down at the needle and understood. The Calm, probably mixed with a strong sedative. A less permanent option for aggressive citizens than Burning. She still tossed the needle away with disgust.
“Into the dumpster,” Ben said. His eyes had shifted back to normal, but light still flickered in the whites of his eyes.
“You crazy. I can’t lift her that high,” Mica gestured to the tall woman. She was thin but pure muscle.
Ben considered. “Get her in the corner by the wall, cover her with trash. What were you thinking?” he asked as Mica dragged the sleeping soldier through the garbage to the brick wall.
“She was going to take us in when we didn’t have papers. And once we get taken in, that’s it. We’re done.”
“You don’t know that she was going to take us in.”
“Well, I was taking control of the situation,” she said and tossed a trash bag onto the sleeping soldier. She’d stink of rotting garlic when she woke up, but at least she wasn’t Burned or dead.
“No, you were reckless,” Ben said. “Like always. Don’t you realize what you’ve done?”
“I saved us,” she said and tried to brush the mud and trash smell from her hands.
“No, you just got us noticed. Once she wakes up, our faces will be on every wanted poster in the city.” Ben rubbed at his neck like it was sore. “Give her another one, just to make sure she’s really out. We need all the time we can get now.”
“But I just covered her up.”
Mica grumbled but did it anyway. Maybe Ben was right. Maybe she had acted a bit rashly. But that soldier would have taken them in when she discovered that they didn’t have papers. And if they got taken in, they’d figure out what Ben was, and they couldn’t let that happen. And taking care of Ben was her job, wasn’t it?
As she fished a Calm dart out of a pile of trash, shame peeped her little head around the corner, and Mica wondered what her rash actions would cost her this time.