Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
After being captured by masked warriors on the Unseen mountain, Mica is interviewed by the imposing Colonel Alayla Mason. Mica begrudgingly tells her story but leaves out some key details. She then questions the Colonel. The Colonel tells her about the Seers (Blinded warriors capable of sensing Watchers) and answers her questions about Watchers. Mica learns that the Watchers are people who can separate themselves from their bodies and, in this ghostly form, enter another person and observe through their eyes. They are also closely tied to the kilns and the Eternals. Mica is offered a choice: leave Nova or stay with the Unseen. Mica decides to remain with the Unseen (with the secret goal of finding her family) and convinces the Colonel to let her attempt to pass the exams needed to become a spy like Aaron. But those exams are difficult even for the Unseen, and if Mica doesn’t pass, she’ll be a field hand for the rest of her life and never find her family…
Mica crossed her arms but winced. All those shots they’d given her were turning her arms black and blue. And Aaron was very late. She had been flicking her lighter on and off, but the doctor with too-short hair had given her such a withering stare, that she’d stopped. The sick smell of medicine and disinfectant was beginning to make her nauseous. Her excitement at making it to the Unseen, and the prospect of joining their military, had evaporated after hours and hours of medical tests and processing. She wished they’d call it something else.
After her interrogation with Colonel Mason, Mica had been taken to the medical bay. It had been late, and she had been given a cot and a meal and shown to the showers. Her tests would begin in the morning. Despite being in a strange place, Mica had slept well. A shower, a bed, and a belly full of warm food had helped more than she liked to admit.
The next morning the doctor with the withering stare had woken her for the medical exams and tests given to all incoming refugees. It was odd–his too-short hair made her feel like she was being examined by a Burner.
Processing had taken all day, and she had hoped she would have been used to the medical smell by the end of it, but the scent still stung her nose and stuck in the back of her throat. After a few hours, the doctor had pronounced her a bit malnourished and underweight, but nothing a few weeks of hearty eating couldn’t cure. He had stamped her file approved for manual labor. Mica couldn’t remember ever feeling so relieved.
But that was hours ago, and Aaron was still not there.
Mica bounced her knee. As soon as Aaron got there, she was free to go. Her new, Unseen jumpsuit itched, and her boots were too big, but at least they were clean. The pen she had taken from the doctor’s desk scraped inside her boot, but she kept herself from scratching. It was a nice pen, but the doctor had at least four others just like it in the medical bay, and Mica had never seen a pen like that before, not one with blue ink. As she had waited for the doctor’s final pronouncement on her fate, something had itched her palms until she’d snatched the pen and stuffed it in her boot. The itch subsided when the doctor announced her fit to go.
“Mica,” a voice behind her said.
She paused her jittering and turned in her chair to see Aaron standing in the doorway. He blinked at her behind his coin-shaped glasses.
“About damn time.” Mica jumped up and pushed past him and out the door.
“You don’t know where we’re going,” he called after her as she walked out of the medical bay.
“Don’t care, as long as it’s out of here. Thanks for everything, doc. It’s been great,” she said and pointed to the too-short haired man writing at his desk. He only lifted a hand in reply.
Aaron caught up to her and took the lead. “You’re upset.”
“Whatever gave you that idea? How do you get out of here? I want to be outside.”
“This way. And I am sorry all this is difficult on you.”
“Difficult? Which part? You abandoning me on the mountain, or your girlfriend interrogating me, oh, how about all those medical tests and shots? They turned me into a porcupine in there. Never seen so many needles in my life.”
“Standard for processing everyone coming into the city. I had intended for our journey to the city to be less traumatic. I told you to keep your blindfold on.”
“You have nothing to worry about. This is all just—”
“I know, standard processing procedure. Got it. Where’s the door?”
“This way. And I am sorry you are finding this process… uncomfortable.”
Mica rolled her eyes. “At least I’m out of the medical bay. Who was that, Colonel Mason woman, anyway?”
“Alayla is head of the Office of Military and Intelligence, and on the Council.”
“Oh, Alayla, is it?”
Aaron ignored her tone and the snarky batting of her eyelashes at him.
“When I left for Windrose,” he said, “she had considerably less power than she does now.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Unseen have no one leader. Instead, we have a Council made up of representatives from the seven offices. Each representative on the Council has an equal vote, an equal voice. Alayla’s voice seems to have more weight than it did when I left. But for now, that has worked in your favor. Congratulations.”
“For what?” Mica asked.
“Alayla agreed to let you attempt to pass the basic exam. Refugees don’t usually get to study with a tutor, but I guess Alayla was feeling generous.”
“Didn’t hurt that you put in a good word for me,” Mica said.
Aaron glanced at her. “Why do you think I did that?”
“I mean, I assume you did. Why else would Colonel Mason make an exception for me? I’m nobody from nowhere,” she said. “Thank you,” she added begrudgingly.
Aaron only nodded. She couldn’t remember ever feeling so relieved and grateful, ever. If she could pass all the right exams, then maybe she could use the Unseen’s resources to find her family.
“You’ll be staying with me for the time being,” Aaron said. “I figured you’d rather stay with a familiar face than in the group barracks.”
Mica thought for a moment and then said thank you. Part of her wanted to be in the group barracks, meet people, and make friends. She was in the Unseen City in the White Mountains, and part of her wanted to explore and take it all in. But another part of her was anxious and scared and… weary. She felt so very weary in her bones and her soul. Maybe it was a good idea to ease into things for once.
“I thought it might make the transition easier since—”
“I know, I know. Since it’s been so difficult on me.”
Aaron nodded, and Mica followed him into a large stone cavern. Like the center of an anthill, hallways and passages all converged on this one vast space. Metal stairs and walkways covered the walls like webs and led to bright hallways and dark closed doors. The cavern ceiling dripped with stalactites, and the walls shimmered with flecks of sparkling rock in the bright electric lights. Large fluorescent lights hung down from the ceiling, suspended and swaying in the air like rows of bright fireflies.
“Where are we?” she asked. Her voice grew louder and rang off the stone like she was standing inside a large bell.
“This is the arrival bay. All incoming persons are brought here for… to be cleared before entering the city.”
For once, he didn’t say, processing. They passed a hallway closed off by a door of metal bars. Mica stopped and pressed her cheeks against the cold metal to see beyond. The dark hallway stretched before her with doors on either side of the hall cut into the rock. There were ten doors. All had little windows, and most were open to the small emptiness inside. All but two doors stood open.
“What’s this?” Mica asked, but she knew.
“These are holding cells. Our jail.”
“Only ten cells? For the whole city?”
Aaron nodded. “We don’t need more. Unseen justice is swift.”
“What did they do?” she asked, nodding to the closed doors.
“They stole,” he said, ending the conversation. But the pen in Mica’s boot itched. “This way.”
Aaron led her from the stony prison towards a door flanked by two hawk-eyed guards. The guards watched them approach the door with searching eyes. Aaron swiped his card on the lock, which clicked and beeped, and he opened the door. He led Mica up a towering spiral of metal stairs, their footsteps clanged and rang like they were stamping on heavy wind chimes with each step. They reached a metal door at the top, and Aaron again swiped his card. The lock clicked and beeped. He paused with his hand on the handle.
“We’re taking the long way,” Aaron said with a blink, and before she could ask what that meant, he opened the door.
Sunlight filled Mica’s vision and warmed her face. She squinted to see and stepped out into the sunshine. A cool breeze swept her hair around her face. The stench of rock and cleaning supplies vanished, replaced by the fresh scent of water and green and earth. Her eyes adjusted to the light, and Mica saw the far edge of the path drop away, and the trees and the mountain and the sky were all she could see. She and Aaron stood on a wide path that snaked its way around the mountainside.
“Welcome to the Unseen.”
“Welcome to the city,” he said and gestured to the scene before him.
She looked, confused. “But it’s just the mountain.”
“You sure about that?” he asked and gestured again to the mountain before her.
It took her a moment to realize that she wasn’t just looking at the mountainside–she was actually looking at the city itself. Hidden and disguised to blend in with the plants and rock around it, the city flourished unseen in the open. And Mica saw the Unseen City for the first time.
The city had been built into a narrow chasm. It stretched around the mountain so that one side of the city was facing the other in a deep V shape. The city sprawled amid the trees and cliffs and outcrops of rock, sheltered by the mountain and disguised by the wilderness around them. Brush and trees and tangles of flowers peppered the city and overhung every door and window. Shutters were painted to look like stone from above, doors like rock or dark fallen trees. Mica imaged that if the city were closed up, it would be completely hidden from sight.
A river flowed from the top of the mountain to the center of the city where the two sides of the V met. It dropped into foaming and frothing waterfalls, which plunged into deep pools at the base of the gorge. From the pools, the river continued to flow down the mountain and disappeared into the rocks and trees.
“Oh. It’s so…” Mica paused, unable to choose from the many words that swirled in her mind to describe what she saw.
“After fifty years of hiding underground without incident from the Windrose army, the Unseen expanded the city from underground caves to the side of the mountain,” Aaron said. He began to walk, leading Mica down the path that hugged the mountain. “But we still maintain stealth and secrecy, even in our engineering. Watch your step,” he said, holding an arm out to keep her from walking straight off the path and off the mountain.
“Sorry.” Mica glanced over the edge, the mountain fell away and plunged down and down to rock below. A fall like that would kill her.
Aaron continued. “Most of the city lives inside the mountain in the center chasm, facing in. The military barracks are on the other side of the mountain, facing out, that’s where I live. It’s on the east side to keep watch for possible attacks, but that hasn’t happened in almost three hundred years. Nevertheless, the city has been designed to be invisible from airships flying above.”
“Unseen like unseen,” Mica said. She stared in awe of what they had accomplished. This mountain city was a far cry from the flat open sky of West Six. “It’s beautiful,” she finally said.
“I haven’t seen it in years.”
They stood staring at the city. Lights were beginning to flicker in the windows as the sun sank lower to the top of the mountain.
“Let’s go,” Aaron said and walked off.
He led them down the winding path down the mountain to a door overhung with green and again swiped his card. He opened the door, struggling against the overhanging leaves and vines, and they again descended into the dark of the mountain. Mica would have preferred to stay outside and stare at the marvel of a city. But there’d be time for that later.
Aaron led them through several hallways hung with bright lights floating above them like a trail of falling stars. Closed and numbered doors lined the hallways. Aaron walked to a door at the far end of the hall, the last door on the right before a dark window. Out that window was the East, the distant Windrose City, and darkness.
“This is my apartment. You and your tutor will be staying in the back room. It’s small, but I’m sure you’ll make due,” he said, again swiping his card.
“When do I get one of those?”
“Soon. You’ll be issued a card with limited access to get you where you are authorized to go. Your work assignment, the market. I’ll get that for you tomorrow.” Aaron opened the door, took two steps inside, and stopped.
Mica almost ran into him. “What is it? What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Welcome home, big brother!” a young man’s voice said.
Mica pushed past Aaron into the room. The room was small and practical and had that empty and musty, disused smell. When Mica saw who was sitting on the bench in the middle of the room, she gasped. A young man about her age, no more than eighteen or nineteen at most, sat on the thin cushions on the bench. But this was not just any young man. He wore a dark scarf tied around his eyes and head–this was the young Seer from the forest.
“What the hell is going on?” Mica demanded.
“Language,” Aaron said.
“Still as uptight as ever I see,” the young man said with a smirk.
Aaron closed the door and faced the Seer. “Mica, this is my brother, Stephen.”
“Your brother?” Mica asked. “You didn’t think to tell me you had a brother, and that he’s one of… those?”
Aaron tilted his head. “I didn’t know.”
“That you had a brother, or that he’s a Seer?” Mica asked.
“What are you doing here, Stephen?” Aaron asked, ignoring Mica. “Where is the tutor for Mica? I requested Lynn.”
“What, no, good to see you? No, how you been? No, long time no see, brother?” Stephen asked and smiled. He had a wide smile that filled the lower half of his face with crinkles and dimples and pulled at scars from long-ago acne. Something about his smile frightened Mica. Maybe it was that she could not see his eyes beneath the mask to tell whether his expression was a smile or a grimace or a snarl.
Aaron’s shoulders tightened and rose. “I’m sorry. Hello, Stephen, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m doing great. How about you? How long has it been?”
“Can we not do this now? What happened to Lynn?” Aaron asked.
“I’m afraid that your request for Lynn was denied. Alayla sent me instead.”
“And are you a Seer?” Aaron asked with a flat tone, but Mica could tell he was upset. “Where is your Guide?”
“Seer in training, so no assigned Guide. Not yet. Your return coincided with the end of basic. Almost. I had another month to go, but Alayla sent me home early for my Final Consideration. She wants someone she trusts to keep an eye on that one,” Stephen said, pointing to Mica. “Pun intended.”
“Hey!” Mica said. She resented being called, ‘that one,’ but wondered how he knew exactly where she was standing.
“I meant no offense,” Stephen said, his grin widening.
“Well, I don’t want you as my tutor. I want someone else,” Mica said.
“Sorry. You don’t get to make demands. Alayla decides, and we obey,” he said with a mock bow, but Aaron frowned.
“Colonel Mason. You call her Colonel Mason,” Aaron said.
“Besides,” Stephen continued, “do you really think this is a good idea?”
“You being here? No, I do not,” Aaron said.
Stephen shook his head. “No, no. Sending her to the fields among the Everyman. You know what they think of her. I mean, you couldn’t possibly put her in the group barracks, so why are the fields okay?”
Mica bristled. “Excuse me, but I’m right here. What are you talking about?”
“She’ll be fine in the fields, but it doesn’t matter,” Aaron said. “We do what Colonel Mason says, remember? That’s why you’re here.”
“Well, I do see the irony of it,” Stephen said. “Send the blind man to keep an eye on and teach the pretty girl. Makes sense, yeah?”
Aaron rolled his eyes. “You’re not blind, Stephen. You’re not, are you? You didn’t have an accident or an illness?”
“No, no accident or illness.”
Aaron sank into a chair with a sigh. Mica couldn’t tell if it was a relieved or worried sigh.
She studied Stephen. “So,” she said, trying to cut the tension. “What, you get nights and weekends off from scaring the shit out of people?” Aaron shot her a dirty look. She shrugged, in mock innocence and mouthed, sorry.
Stephen cocked his head in the direction of her voice, like a dog listening for a bird. “I haven’t taken my oath yet.”
“Yeah, sure. But can someone please explain what the—” Aaron shot her a warning glance. “What this Seer… Celebration thing is?” She puckered her face in a confused looked.
Aaron nodded, but he frowned. “Consideration. Seer volunteers train for five years. During that time, many fail, and all can walk away at any time. If they complete initial the training, they spend time away from the Seers to decide if this is the life they want or not before committing to a life with the Seers. That is the Final Consideration before the Oath is taken. Why would you do this?” Aaron asked, turning to Stephen.
“I wanted to serve.”
“But your sight? Why would you give that up?”
“There’s always something to give up, Aaron, you of all people should know that. You know what you gave up when you left for Windrose. You won’t change my mind, so don’t try.”
The tension sucked all the air out of the room, and Mica had the good sense to keep quiet this time. She wondered what had passed between these brothers, and how long Aaron had really been gone.
“I didn’t know you wanted this,” Aaron said.
“Would it have changed your mind about going? Would you have stayed, yeah?”
Aaron did not respond.
“You’ve made your choice, and I’ve made mine.”
“We’ll talk about this later.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. But spending time with my beloved big brother isn’t the only reason I’m here. I have a job to do.” He turned his broad smile on Mica.
She shivered. Something about him set her on edge, and she did not trust him. She had been ready to learn from a female soldier and convince her that she was smart, capable, and a good bet, but this was not what she had in mind. Not at all. Something wasn’t right, and she needed to find out what it was. She stuck her tongue out at Stephen and then glanced at Aaron. She had expected to receive a glare and a correction, but he only sat with a crinkle in his brow and blinked.