Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Mica is cleared to remain in the Unseen City, and Aaron escorts her to her new home. As they walk through the mountain, they pass the jail. It has suspiciously few cells for an entire city. Unseen justice is swift, Aaron says. Outside the Arrival Bay, Mica sees the Unseen City for the first time, hidden in plain sight on the mountain. At Aaron’s apartment, where Mica will be staying for the time being, Aaron is shocked to find a young man waiting for them. It is his younger brother, Stephen: the young Seer from the mountain who Mica first encountered. The brothers argue, and Stephen tells them that he is Mica’s new tutor. Mica wonders why this mysterious young man was chosen to watch her, and what secrets he’s hiding…
Something about red snow…
A knock on the door jolted Mica out of a dream. She knew she had been dreaming, but the instant her eyes opened, she couldn’t remember what the dream had been, just that it had left sadness over her like ash. The red and whiteness of it… the ache of it seemed to glow in the darkness around her like ashes from a dying fire.
“What?” she said and rubbed at the crackly bits in her eyes. Across from her sat a second bed, a cot, really. The emptiness of it seemed to grow as shame crawled up onto it and sat looking at her with too-big eyes. Her whole life, Mica had gone to sleep with Anda in the bed on the other side of the room. She had never gone to sleep without someone else in the room before the Unseen.
Even in the Empty Places, Aaron had been a few feet away on the ground. She wasn’t sure she liked sleeping alone.
Stephen had volunteered to sleep on the wooden bench in the living area, instead of sharing this smaller room with Aaron and giving Mica the single room with its own bathroom. Mica couldn’t say she felt sorry for him, and she had wanted that private bathroom to herself.
“Time to get up,” Stephan said from the other side of the door. “You’ve got work today.”
“But it’s not even day. Call me when the sun comes up,” she said and flopped back into bed. The emotion of the past couple days caught up with her, and all she wanted to do was sleep. She wondered if she would ever feel rested again. This was the first day of her Unseen journey to find Anda and Ben and Peter, and all she wanted to do was shut her eyes and sleep.
Thumping on her door. “Let’s go—I don’t want to be late. And I’ll give you our first lesson over breakfast, yeah?”
All was quiet. Then the soft sound of his staff tapping softly against the floor told Mica that he had gone. She wondered just how dangerous Stephen and his staff were, and she wondered what the metal prongs on top of his staff did although she had a pretty good guess.
With a yawn, Mica thought that maybe in some way, this was her first test: getting out of bed. But today was the first day of her new life, and that was exciting, no matter how tired she was. Besides, she had to get up and find out what Stephen was really up to.
She groaned, but she got up and dressed, tugging at her too-big jumpsuit. She pushed open the window and breathed in the cold, dark mountain air. The first thing she did when she got into the room last night was open the window. It was only prudent to have an escape plan. The window opened onto a cliff facing east and the rising sun. But since the window opened onto an almost sheer cliff face, that wouldn’t be much of an escape. She wondered if they knew her window opened or didn’t care. After all, who’d be stupid enough to scale that cliff?
She closed the window, and her reflection stared back at her, dark in the window. And she put the memories of her family firmly in front of her. As she put her hair in a braid, she ran over her plan. First, study hard and pass this stupid test. Figure out what Stephen was up to and stop him. Become a spy like Aaron. Then find her family. Easy. But then she noticed the smell of breakfast, something hot and buttery, and her gut rumbled.
In the kitchen, Stephen stood over a pot on the stove. Mica’s first instinct was panic. Even though she disliked him, Stephan’s blindness made her feel like she had to protect him from doing something stupid or burning himself or walking off a cliff. It was that same impulse she had when Ben struggled to lift a crate and balance on his crutch, or tried to open the door while holding a brace of rabbits, or frowned at a wheel barrel full of dirt to be moved.
That’s when she would normally step in, unasked, and just do whatever it was Ben was struggling with. That was what her mother meant when she said Mica had to take care of them. They needed her. She had to be the strong one.
But then she remembered how Ben had always turned red when she helped him with a stab of guilt. So she kept her mouth shut. Besides, Stephan had survived this long without her help, and he’d be able to make breakfast just fine without her. His staff leaned against the wall.
“All right,” she said, eyeing the staff. The metal prongs were capped, but she knew they were there. “I’m up. What’s this first lesson?”
“First lesson: everyone works. Practical: get the dishes.”
“You woke me up for that? Really?”
“Everyone works, so everyone eats. Dishes are there,” he said, pointing to a cabinet to his right.
“That’s not exactly a novel idea,” Mica said, but she opened the cabinet. There were three plates, three bowls, and three mugs. She frowned at them, not sure which ones to pick.
“Bowls,” he said as if sensing her confusion. “And while it’s not novel, it’s an idea that has kept us alive and safe for hundreds of years. Everyone works, has a job and a purpose, so everyone is needed. No one is wasted, and apparently, that includes you. Silverware in the drawer.”
The drawer held a few more utensils, four or five per person, instead of the exact three.
“So you’ve really been here this whole time? Under the mountain?”
“Yes. All right, get your food,” he said, stepping out of the way with a grin that was nothing like Aaron’s. So far, she couldn’t find anything familiar about him. He was so different from Aaron. She kept expecting to see a glimmer of his brother in him, but she only saw a stranger. “And I have to warn you,” he said with a crooked and dimpled smile. “I am a wonderful cook.”
Breakfast, while it smelled decent, looked awful. A gray paste spotted with deeper gray spots bubbled in the pan.
“What the hell is this?” Mica asked, crinkling her nose.
“Oatmeal. It’s good for you.”
She spooned a small half into her bowl and tasted it. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t really good either. Edible was the word she decided on. Barely.
But she was hungry.
“Eat fast,” he said, taking the remaining oatmeal and digging in.
“So, why are you here?” Mica asked between gray, gluey mouthfuls, staring at the depths of darkness that covered Stephen’s eyes.
“My purpose is to help keep the Unseen safe from Watchers.”
“No, no. Not that purpose, I mean here. Now.”
Stephen cocked his head. “Breakfast?”
“No, why are you here tutoring me? Alayla could have gotten anyone to do that—she could have just let whoever Aaron picked. But she chose you. Why?”
He smiled. It was a warm and complex smile that Mica did not fully understand, like when Anda revealed a secret stash of sweets or introduced her new pet rabbit.
“I guess she thought I would be a better tutor,” he said. “I am also an excellent tutor, not just a wonderful chef.”
“Bullshit. You were on the mountain when they took me in. I remember you.”
“Do you? I’m flattered,” he said, but Mica saw him shift in his seat.
“What’s your staff do? You and your friends were pointing them at me on the mountain.”
“Our staffs are designed to eliminate Watchers.”
Mica remembered with a grimace when Cassandra had shocked her to get the Watcher out of her head. It was an experience she’d like never to repeat.
“Why you?” she asked. You’re not a tutor, and this isn’t your job. Like you’ve been saying: you’re a Seer.”
“But I’m good at so many things. And I am an even better tutor than I am cook.”
“Hopefully, this is terrible. You’re here to spy on me, aren’t you? Not just keep tabs so I don’t get lost. You’re here to study me. Spy on me.”
Stephen put his hand on in chest in mock offense. “Spy? No, no. Aaron’s the spy, remember?”
“But you’re so good at so many things, why not spy too?”
“That hurts. Really, it does.”
“But I’m right, aren’t I?”
He laughed, and Mica did not enjoy the sound. “Not everything is about you, Mica,” he said coolly. “It’s a big, big world, and it doesn’t revolve around you. You do know that, right?”
He asked with such sincerity and concern that, Mica flushed. “Of course I know that that. But you’re up to something, and I’m going to find out what it is.”
“Sure, Mics,” he said and smiled. And Mica was reminded of not Aaron, but Peter for an instant. It caught her off guard, and her heart grew heavy and tired. “You go ahead and try,” Stephen said. “But I’m only here to help you find your purpose. There’s nothing sinister in that.”
Mica let a glop of oatmeal fall to her bowl. She already knew her purpose, and she could see her future clearly. She would find her family, and she just hoped that Stephen wouldn’t get in her way.
Stephen led her through the dark city before sunrise, and Mica wondered that he didn’t fall or trip. He tapped his staff in front of him to test the ground and search for anything that might trip him up. His footsteps followed the little woodpecker tap, tap, tap, of his staff that led them down the mountain. Since he’d grown up here, she assumed he knew every rock, ledge, and crack, just like how she knew every inch of the forest back home.
The thought brought shame, that small and thin child, to her side again.
They came to a door set into the rock of the mountain, a large and iron door covered in moss, and Stephen opened it.
“Hey, I thought we were going to the fields?” Mica said, gesturing away from the mountains, not that he could see her.
Stephen smiled a wide and crinkled smile. “We are,” he said and ducked into the darkness under the mountain.
Mica paused, a bit worried that Stephen would try and murder her, and that she’d have to beat up a blind man. But she wasn’t worried enough to not follow him into the darkness.
The door led to a tunnel filled with light. Lights and wires strung along the sides of the tunnel flickered pale and white. It was a harsh light, too bright and too clear for such a small space, and the brightness was disorienting. The sides of the tunnel glimmered with crystals and rock she didn’t have names for. And the lights stretched before them sloping down into the earth.
He led her down and down and down and down until he came to the end of the tunnel and a door. “Welcome to the fields,” Stephen said with a smile.
“Are you joking?”
“Would I joke about something like this?” he asked and opened the door.
And the rest of the day was a dream of color and wind and smell of earth and lavender.
The first thing she noticed was the smell. A clean and earthy and green scent filled her lungs and nose and permeated her skin and hair and clothes. And the plants—rows and rows and rows of plants all in perfect and exacting order. Rows stretching out into the vast cavernous room, going up to the lights and the top of the rocky atrium above her, stretching out in either direction and climbing the walls of this abbey of life and leaf. Gentle wind from a massive fan rustled the delicate leaves and the scent of rosemary and tomato and peppers washed over her like water. Even the light was a different color. It was blue and green and red, at once familiar and warm and yet utterly foreign. Spring peeped at her from a tower of leaves and red peppers.
Mica remembered Stephen finding and introducing her to a thin man named Annie. His hands were dirty. Strong. Thin. And dry. When he shook her hand, she felt callouses. She couldn’t tell what color his eyes were, something about the light made them shift.
“Isn’t Annie usually a girl’s name?” she asked the man, but she stared into the leaves and the light and the bright.
The thin man scratched his shaved head. “Isn’t Mica usually a boy’s name?”
“Huh,” she said, but she was staring at the heads of lettuce, giant like green roses. The colors and smells and the coolness that settled on the back of her neck kept her mind from taking everything in. These were the fields hidden within the mountain. And this was her assignment: to work in these secret and thriving fields. Something bright and green and glowing seemed always at the edges of her vision, and Mica wondered who it was.
As she stared at a cart of flowers rolling by, leaving a sweet scent in its path like a censer, Annie outlined the rules: do what you’re told, and no stealing food. She heard him like he was speaking behind a waterfall, and
her first day passed like a cool breeze blowing away a mist.
Stephen had left long ago, but Mica hadn’t even noticed. She’d been given a white jumpsuit suit like everyone else, a white and soft and cotton suit, which she pulled on over her clothes. Then she helped stack pallets. For hours, she stacked pallets with a girl in a white suit and an overbite and large eyes that glittered in the green light. Her hair was short, but not like she’d been Burned short, more like she’d cut it to be that length kind of short. Her short black hair was pulled back into a small springy tail that bounced when she walked like a black rabbit tail. Mica had never seen hair like that before.
“Hi,” she said to the rabbit-haired girl.
The girl scowled at her and turned away disgusted.
Mica would have been confused, but someone walked by pushing a cart piled high with pineapples, and Mica wondered if she might taste one yet.
After lunch, small cardboard boxes handed around packed with protein chunks and fresh vegetables, Mica stacked more pallets. Soon her white suit was soaked with sweat, and her ankles ached in her too-big boots. Despite the work and her general overstimulated haze, she noticed that people stared at her. No one spoke to her, and she didn’t speak to anyone else after the rabbit haired girl’s reaction. But she heard them whisper when she passed. Their voices dropping low from conversation to a tone meant for speaking secrets and gossip and lies.
Mica didn’t mind. There were too many strange new sights and smells of this forest under the mountain. Spring proudly showed off her children, her treasures, and Mica admired each and every one. Eventually, Annie told her it was time to go. Nice job, see you tomorrow. But she barely heard him. Her first day of work in the Unseen was not over yet. As she left, a mossy hand on the edge of her awareness raised in farewell, and Mica thought she heard laughter like wind.
“What’s that?” Mica asked, gesturing to a tower of books stacked neatly in the living room. She had just emerged from the shower, and her hair still smelled like soap. It had been a cold and quick shower, and she had almost hated to wash away the smell of earth and spring that had permeated her hair and clothes and skin, but spring was in the soap, too.
“Those are your books,” Stephen said. He sat on his bench, hands on his knees, head roving to sounds that caught his attention. He tilted his head to her and sniffed. “You used the lavender soap, yeah?”
She smelled at her hair. He was right. “Yeah, okay, weirdo. Why didn’t anyone talk to me in the fields?”
“Don’t pay any attention to that,” he said, waving his hand like he was batting away a lazy fly. “Now, where did you leave off in school?”
“Don’t pay any attention to what? All the staring?”
“It’s nothing. Just… ignore them. And we’ve got a lot of work to do, so we should get started.”
Mica, genuinely curious, absently wove a tiny braid into her hair. “Is it because I’m from Nova?”
Stephen sighed. “West Six, actually. Word travels fast.”
Mica looked up from her braid. “West Six? West Six is a shithole of a town at the edge of the Empty Places. Why would they care about that?”
“Because everyone knows the Prophet Lore.”
“Prophet Lore? Like the Prophets from the storybook?”
Stephen nodded. “Yes, but the real story, not Novan lies.”
“What’s the real story?”
Stephen’s jaw worked for a moment, then he said, “There were Twelve Prophets. Ten all have been captured and killed by the Prophet Killer, Rufus. The remaining two Prophets were lost in West Six. The Unseen Prophet and his son, the Last Prophet.”
The Unseen Prophet brought back memories of wet leaves, molding berries, and glowing Watcher eyes in the dark. Mica shivered. “What does that have to do with me?” she asked. “None of that’s my fault.”
“No, it’s not. But they think you’re bad luck.”
Mica caught her breath. “But—”
“And we’ll get to all that soon. Prophet Lore is a big subject. Promise. But if we don’t get started, we’ll be up all night doing this. Books! Study! Learn!” he said, slapping a book with his palm.
“Fine. But I won’t forget about this.”
“I certainly hope not,” he said with a smile.
Mica made a face at him, but sat across from him on the floor and tilted her head to read the spines of the books.
Mathematics. Science. Geology. Poetry. History. Philosophy.
A flush warmed her cheeks, and her pulse start to race. “I have to learn all this?” she asked.
“Yep. This is all for the year you’d be currently in Nova, let’s start by going over what you do know and see what matches up. Where did you leave off?”
She scratched her head and undid the little braid. “I didn’t go.”
“What do you mean?”
She made an irritated gesture, even though he couldn’t see her. “I mean, we didn’t go to the government school. We worked on our farm instead,” she said, and then regretted it almost instantly. She didn’t want to give him any information she didn’t have to—she didn’t know what he wanted to know or why.
Stephen frowned, his mouth turning down so hard she thought he might pull something. “Why not?” He asked. “I thought everyone in Nova had to go to school. It’s mandatory. Government-run.”
“The why isn’t important,” she said, but it was important to her. She had always wanted to go to the government-run school, learn a real trade, do something other than pull weeds, and plant corn. But Ben’s leg had meant that he couldn’t go or he’d be Burned or worse. And he couldn’t run the farm on his own, so Mica couldn’t go herself. And all because of their mother.
“Okay,” Stephen said. “But how did you stay out of the system?”
Mica weighed her options and decided that telling him something was better than nothing. After all, she did need his help to learn everything in these books so that she could pass the exams. And maybe being on good terms with him would help her figure out what he was up to.
“Our parents got work permits for us. They’re three-month permits, and we’re only allowed one per year. So they bribed the commanding officer for four permits per year so we wouldn’t have to go. After they died, Ben kept up with the bribes. Peter helped with the money….” She broke off as Peter’s face flashed before her, and all the future she had imagined with him faded like mist. “Did you know him?” She asked.
“Peter Wells? Yes,” Stephen said, and his voice was gentle and soft. “He was always kind to me. How did he end up living with you?”
Mica tensed, sensing something in the way Stephen’s voice changed. It wasn’t much, just a question behind the question, but something felt off.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess we were kind to him when he needed it. Why wasn’t he here? In the Unseen? I never found out why he left.”
Stephen tilted his head. “He left to find his family. And he never came back because he found them.”
“He didn’t have any family.”
“I guess he never told you much, did he? Well, I guess it’s no secret. Short version is, Peter comes from the most important Unseen family, the Wells. The Prophets.”
Mica caught her breath. The Unseen Prophet had brought Watchers and death to her family, and Peter was one of them?
Stephen continued, “years ago, Peter’s father went to Windrose to fight in what became known as the Burning Rebellion with his father, the Warrior Prophet. The rebellion failed, and Loraine burned half of Windrose City and killed the Warrior Prophet. Peter’s father escaped, and he met and married a woman from West Six. They both fled to the Unseen where they had Peter, the Last Prophet. When Peter was old enough, they went back to West Six so that Peter could meet his grandmother—”
“But Watchers came looking for the Unseen Prophet,” Mica finished.
“I guess growing up there, you knew that, yeah?”
“That’s why everyone was looking at me weird. Because they all know I come from West Six.”
“Probably. After his wife was killed, Peter’s father left and defected to Loraine. Peter found out that his father betrayed us, and then disappeared. But I guess he ended up with you.”
They were quiet for a moment. Mica let reminiscence stroll through her memories, shifting and changing them from bright and shining things to gray and sharp and pale images. Suddenly everything had more than one meaning, even Peter. Reminiscence just laughed, her very voice a contradiction, old and young, strong and soft, kind and vicious.
“Maybe we should start with History,” Stephen said.
Mica closed the door in her mind on the memories of Peter, but she knew she’d be back, just like she knew those memories had now lost their color and no longer smelled like honey and earth and sunshine.
“Sure. I can do this,” she said, eyeing the stack of books suddenly very unsure of herself.
“Of course,” Stephen said. “I’m just wondering where to start. Well, we won’t be starting with these. We’ll have to start at the beginning.”