Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Mica and Ben make their way to West One, the parasite of a city leeching on Windrose City. Mica raises the issue of Ben’s limp, but Ben dismisses her, saying not to worry: he’ll take care of it. But that doesn’t help Mica’s unease. Inside the city limits, Mica and Ben make their way to the bar where they’ll find Hannah’s contact. But Ben’s limp attracts attention, and they are stopped by a soldier. Terrified of being taken in, and unsure that Ben can handle himself, Mica acts. She attacks the soldier. Ben comes to her aid and takes control of the soldier’s mind. They restrain the soldier and knock her out with her own dose of Calm. They may be safe for the moment, but as soon as the soldier wakes up, every soldier and Watcher in the city will be looking for them. Time is running out…
Mica didn’t look back. She was good at that because she knew just how many ghosts were behind her.
She and Ben emerged from the alley and blended into the crowds without looking back. The soldier they had knocked out and left under bags of garbage wouldn’t be waking up anytime soon, but Mica still worried about her. And, more than that, she knew that as soon as that soldier woke up, they’d be out of time.
As they got farther away from the center of the city and the security checks, the crowds thinned. When the city center’s noise faded, and the streets became wide and dirty and mostly deserted, Mica almost relaxed. She took a deep breath, but her hands still shook.
“There,” Ben said and pointed to a bar on the other side of the street. “That’s where we’re going.”
The Black Rock Inn and Bar was near the rows of endless warehouses that stretched into a white horizon. It took up most of the block, much to Mica’s surprise, and it was a massive stone building. It had clearly see better days, and it was clear that those days had been good. Very good. The door were glass and tall. The windows, large, and ornate iron scrolled the sides in intricate designs. Mica wondered what had happened to throw this once-majestic building into such a state. She followed as Ben pushed the door open the limped out of the sunlight into the dim bar.
She imaged what it would have looked like before ruin had found this place.
She imagined the chandelier lit up and complete, not dark and broken. She imagined the marble floors clean and polished. The bar dark and glistening until she could see her face in it. She imagined the smell of bread and beer and flowers. There would have been flowers here on every table. But that was not the sight that greeted her from the dimness, and sadness slipped over Mica.
All she could smell was old beer and grease. Behind the grimy bar, the bartender wiped a glass and shot them an uninterested glance. Mica reminded herself why she was there and let her gaze skip over him to the rest of the place, looking for Styx. This early in the afternoon, the place was mostly empty, but a few relaxed patrons lounged in booths and at the bar with glasses of dark beer or little cups of bright liquid. All the patrons were stocky and dirty and thick with muscles, probably West One locals who worked in the warehouses, processing centers, and security checkpoints. She wondered if they had known this place when it had seen better days. And Mica wondered which one was Styx.
Ben took a seat at the bar, dropping his pack by his feet. Mica followed suit. She almost sighed at the relief of dropping her pack from her aching shoulders. The bartender, a man with an average and forgettable face and receding hairline, wiped down a few more glasses before sauntering over to them. He eyed them with an irritated expression. Despite his remarkably ordinary appearance, his gaze was sharp, and Mica suddenly felt all the grime and dirt from the past days covering her like a plague. And she smelled like trash, and she knew it.
“Yeah?” the bartender asked, leaning an elbow on the bar in front of Ben. His long braid seemed absurdly thin and long for his large frame. He was a large man verging on fat, and Mica didn’t often see large and fat people in Nova. Weight meant food. Food meant money or connections. Mica wondered which one this man had.
“We’re trying to find someone,” Mica said.
“And I’m tryin’a run a business. Drink, or get out.”
“We didn’t say we weren’t drinking,” Ben said, holding his hands up like he was surrendering. “Two, please.”
The bartender frowned at them and eyed Ben’s crutch leaning against the bar. Mica tensed, but he just nodded and moved off to get their drinks.
“What are you doing?” Mica whispered as soon as the bartender was out of earshot. “We don’t have any money—how are we supposed to pay for this?”
“Don’t worry about it, Mica.”
Her face flushed red, and she opened her mouth to say something cutting, but the bartender returned with two cold bottles, setting them down on the counter. Foam ran down the side of the bottle in front of her, and Mica crinkled her nose at it.
“Thanks,” Ben said and took a long swig. Mica sipped her drink and tried to keep her lips from puckering. She disliked beer and preferred something warm and golden served in bright little glasses, like what the old men with wilting faces behind them were drinking.
“Anythin’ else?” the bartender asked.
“No, we’re good for now,” Ben said, staring down into his bottle.
“Enjoy,” the barman said as he wiped his hands on his apron and moved away. Mica didn’t think he meant it.
“Now what?” she asked.
“You can’t just go around asking for this guy.”
“What? You think someone like that is just going to say, ‘oh yes, that’s me, how can I help you today?'”
“And you think waiting around is a good idea?”
“Hannah told me what to do, don’t worry.”
Mica took another sip of her drink and eyed Ben in the speckled and dirty mirror behind the bar. He sounded sure and confident if you didn’t know what to look for. Mica knew the vein throbbing on his neck meant he was anxious. But she kept her mouth shut.
They waited. Ben ordered them some food. While Mica wasn’t sure how they would pay for it, the smell of greasy meat and potatoes reminded her that they hadn’t eaten much the past few days, and she kept her mouth shut—until the steaming plates of food arrived. It had been a while since Mica had gotten meat smothered in gravy. The Unseen preferred less greasy foods.
Daylight skidded slowly across the walls into afternoon. Still, Styx did not show himself. The thick and muscled men from the morning were soon replaced with another crowd, younger and thinner, but still dusty and sweaty and strong. And soon, most of them left too. By the afternoon sun, Mica and Ben were left alone with a few barflies talking softly or snoring in the corner.
“How long are you planning on waiting?” Mica whispered to Ben.
“As long as it takes.”
“We don’t have that long. Remember, we have to find these contacts before Aaron gets them out of Windrose, and they’re useless.”
“We do what Hannah told me.”
“Maybe the bartender knows him—hey! Excuse me?” She waved the bartender down before Ben could stop her.
The bartender shuffled over to them. The shadows under his eyes seemed browner and darker in the afternoon sun. Mica wondered how long he had been awake. “Yeah?” he said.
“Mica,” Ben said in warning, but she went ahead anyway.
“We’re looking for someone,” she said.
The bartender wiped his hands on his apron. “I don’t do that. You gonna pay up?”
“Yeah… see, we’re looking for someone named Styx. Ever heard of him?”
“Nope. Don’t know no, Styx.”
Mica made a frustrated sound. Those two beers were making her head fuzzy. “He works here. Or, around here, or something. Please, it’s important.”
The man shrugged. “Sorry. I can’t help you. You got money to pay for all this, don’t you?”
“Sure we do,” Ben said. “And you’re sure you don’t know, Styx?” he asked after a moment’s hesitation.
“Never heard of him. I’ll give you two minutes to pay up and get the hell out of here,” the bartender said with a glare.
Ben nodded and traced his finger on the table in the sweat from the glasses. He drew a teardrop.
“No, wait, we’ve got to find him,” Mica said, leaning over the bar at him. “It’s important.”
“Well, like I said, ‘I don’t know no, Styx.’ You got the wrong place,” the large man said with a blank face. “Money. Now.”
“Wait,” Mica reached for the bartender and managed to grab the faded apron over his chest. He pushed her off with a disgusted look, but she grabbed at him again. Apparently, that beer was stronger than she was used to. She pulled him as close as she could, coming out of her seat and almost sitting on the bar. “Please.”
“Mics, what are you doing?” Ben asked, pulling her back down onto her chair. Mica ignored him, keeping her eyes on the bartender.
“I’ve had it with you two. You better get—” but he paused, seeing Ben’s teardrop on the bar, and then rubbed his forehead with a grimace. “Ah, hell,” he said under his breath. He reached out with one finger and drew a second teardrop on top of Ben’s, but the fat, rounded parts overlapped. It took Mica a moment to see what they had done. Then she saw that they had drawn the Unseen Eye just before the big man wiped it away with his towel. “All right, look here.” He leaned in to whisper. His face suddenly turned sharp and pointed and sly, like a fox peeking out of a bush with golden glowing eyes. He suddenly looked more alive, in contrast to his nondescript appearance a moment ago, like removing a mask of paper to see the real man beneath.
He whispered to them, “it’s gettin’ real shit around here, you got that? And I’m all done with tickets for now. I won’t risk everythin’ on a whim. Even for the Overseer. Not doin’ it.”
“You’re Styx,” Mica said. And she wondered who the Overseer was.
“And you’re a little loudmouth shit, aren’t you? You want every soldier in this city to know where I conduct my business? Look, I’d like to help the Overseer, really, I would. She’s very professional. Pays on time and everythin’. And I like when people pay on time. But ever since they started steppin’ up security, it’s been tough. Like I already told ’em, I’m done for now. I had one seat on that transport gone out tomorrow mornin’, and that’s it. No more for a while. I’m not riskin’ the whole operation. Got it?”
One seat left. Aaron.
“What happened? Why is the security so tight?” Ben asked.
“Somethin’a do with that factory a few months or so back. Someone broke in, burned it to the ground, and good-ol’-what’s-her-face is pissed to get him,” Styx said.
Mica felt Ben tense beside her at the mention of the factory.
“Well, sorry to have wasted your time,” Ben said and took another sip of his drink.
Mica glared at Ben, then turned her attention back to Styx. “We’re trying to find our sister. Please.”
Mica nodded. She didn’t even flinch when he called Anda a Burner. There was something sad in his voice, like he wasn’t mocking her. It was like he understood. She wondered who he had lost.
Styx shook his head. The harsh angles of his face softened and blurred. “Yeah. Everyone’s got a few of those,” he said, not unkindly. “You’re better off leavin’ her. You’re likely to get yourself Burned or killed tryin’a to find her. No one finds Burners, kid. No one.”
“She’s still out there, and I’m going to find her.”
“Sure. You hear stories about someone seein’ their Burner somewhere, sure. But that’s all they are—stories. It never works out like the stories, does it?”
“It will this time.”
Styx laughed softly. “And why’s that?”
Mica looked at Ben. “It just will.”
“Answer’s still, no.”
“There’s got to be another way into the city,” Mica begged. She didn’t come all this way to get turned away by this fat man.
Styx shrugged. “The only way in is through that east gate. And right now, they’re checkin’ everythin’ and everyone twice. You wouldn’t believe what I had to pull to get that seat tomorrow. Sorry. No way in.”
“But we can pay someone. We have money.”
“Kid, you got money like I got wings. And if you did have money, you’d better keep it. I’m sendin’ the Overseer’s man through tomorrow mornin’, and that’s the last. And, like I told him, I can’t get him out. He’s on his own for that.”
Mica felt her cheeks flush, and she took a deep breath to settle herself. Aaron was heading into the city with no way out. While she hated him for what he was doing to that Watcher, she could never wish Stephen’s brother harm. And what would happen to Stephen without Aaron to protect him from Alayla?
Styx continued, “even my usual who get me the seats on transports is backin’ out—no one’s taking nothin’, not even ready money. And I wouldn’t be sendin’ a cripple through anyway,” he added gently. “Too risky. They’d stop you for sure and then trace it back to me. I’m sorry, there’s nothin’ I can do. Go home and mourn your sister,” Styx said.
Mica laid her hands flat on the damp bar to keep herself calm. If they couldn’t get into the city, they would never find Hannah’s contact, and they would never find Anda. If Styx couldn’t even get them into Windrose, how could they possibly get in? Maybe it was as hopeless as Ben had said.
“We don’t have any money,” Ben said with a flush.
“Kid,” Styx said. “I’m not nearly as dumb as you thought. It’s on me. Tell the Overseer I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.”