The furthest she’d ever come into the city was dealing with the touts and traders that prowled the outer walls hoping to get inside and ply their wares. In her experience they rarely succeeded. This was her first time within the walls and she struggled to adjust to the sheer magnitude of the place. Not just its size but its intensity; its complexity. Everywhere you looked people were busying through the streets almost atop each other. Children skittered about in tiny gangs from doorway to doorway, disappearing down ladders and speeding along gantries threaded between the buildings.
As she stumbled downward into the metropolis she noticed the buildings to her immediate left were crammed with busy traders shouting and waving fistfuls of unfamiliar money. Behind them assistants grabbed bales of exotic dried plants and jars filled with colourful powders and thrust them upon members of the eager crowd as they snatched their payment.
Further down the street a row of kiosks gushed savoury steam. As she passed she took a deep breath and inhaled a lungful of aromas, the wares of all the kiosk vendors finding each other in the air. While most of the business appeared to happen up front, Cassidy noticed that many of the kiosks had seating behind the counter, home to elderly gentleman peacefully eating bowlfuls of meat and noodles.
As she approached an intersection, a bicycle whizzed across in front of her carrying at least four children of differing ages and sizes giggling as they disappeared into the haze. Wandering deeper, her eyes adjusted to the gloom of the lower levels. From somewhere above her came the good-natured shouting of workmen closely followed by the flashes and sparks of a spot-welder. Cassidy wondered if the city were constantly being refitted and rearranged to accommodate new people. Space certainly seemed to be at a premium.
Cassidy kept a constant eye out for any familiar faces. She didn’t even know if the others had been released or expunged back into the wilderness. Waiting by the gate was not an option. If they thought for a minute she intended to get back in she felt she would have been welcome at the gallows beyond. Until she could get her bearings she could only remain vigilant for signs that she wasn’t alone inside the iron walls.
As she turned a corner she noticed a familiar sight. Above a small door hung a swinging metal sign. The text was written in indecipherable glyphs but the picture below was unmistakeable. A smiling woman holding a drink. She murmured several prayers of thanks under her breath and made for the door.
Inside it was remarkably empty by comparison to the bustling streets. Much of the seating was unoccupied. In an alcove towards the rear two men nursed glasses of crimson liquid whilst they shuffled porcelain shapes around a board between them on the table. Neither looked up as she entered, both had a brow furrowed in concentration. On the bar sat a plump little girl eating nuts from a bowl. She stared curiously at Cassidy as she approached the bar and took up a stool.
The girl continued to gaze wordlessly as if trying to figure out an equation written on Cassidy’s forehead. Cassidy returned her gaze politely but, unsure of how to begin a sensible conversation, soon returned to looking straight ahead at the racks of bottles behind the bar. Catching sight of herself in the mirrored wall behind them, she noticed she had aged at least 10 years, her face was drawn and dirty and stray hairs stuck out from her ponytail in wisps and clumps.
A scraping noise made her look down at the bar. With a single pudgy foot the girl had pushed her bowl of nuts in front of Cassidy and gestured with a nod for her to have some. Cassidy was starving but her stomach was still unsteady. She returned the nod and began to pick at the nuts in the bowl. The girl simply grinned and grabbed her feet as she rocked back and forth on the bar occasionally whispering a few tuneful words from a song only she could hear and that Cassidy could not understand.