Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Mica adjusts to her new life in the hidden city of the Unseen. She has been assigned to work in the fields–a cavern deep in the mountain where the Unseen grow their food. However, her new Unseen co-workers appear distrustful of her, and she doesn’t know why. Stephen, the young and temporarily blinded Seer in training, also Aaron’s little brother, is assigned to tutor Mica and help her adjust to her new life. He tells her why the Unseen are wary of her: they think she’s bad luck because she comes from West Six–the place they lost their beloved Prophets. Mica discovers that Peter, the young man who lived with her family, was an Unseen Prophet. As her past shifts and changes, Mica wonders how her future will unfold and if she will ever find her family, lost somewhere in Nova…
Months passed, and winter fell on the White Mountains. Mica wrestled with pallets and math during the day, and demons at night. During the day, she worked in the fields and the light and the scent of growing things. Some days she scrubbed pallets. Some days she scrubbed toilets. Some days she did both. And still, the rabbit-haired girl watched her but did not speak to her, afraid of bad luck from West Six. And Mica learned to eat all the pasty oatmeal Stephen made each morning.
After work in the fields, she helped Stephen make the evening meal. It was never anything fancy, mostly vegetables and meat substitutes. If they were lucky, Aaron would join them. He always looked so tired, always taking his glasses off and rubbing at his eyes and taking deep breaths, but at least she got to see him. Aaron was the only other person who knew Ben and Anda, and it was nice to know that they were remembered by someone other than herself.
In the evenings after dinner, Aaron would shut himself up in his room for more work, while Mica studied with Stephen. She would read, she would recount times tables, she would try and remember all the names of the Unseen Prophets, the names of the Novan Wars, and the types of minerals and rocks found deep in the mountain. And each day, it got harder and harder, and each day she fell farther and farther behind despite her hard work. Her chance of passing even the most basic Unseen exam was fading fast.
The bright spot was her physical lessons. Three times a week, Stephen would take her down to the Seer complex in the woods. The complex was set into the earth and covered with grass and rocks and wildflowers to hide it from prying eyes. She never saw any Seers. Mica found the quietness of it reassuring. There she had lessons with her trainer, Rebekah.
Rebekah was an extremely tall woman with hands too large for her already too-tall frame. Strange tattoos of strange ancient words swirled up her neck. Her hair was a tight braid, but it wasn’t long like Novan braids. It was short and gray and slick. Her stare and her voice were cold, but the lines Mica saw down her face were from smiling, not frowning, and her scowl looked off, unused, and too tense.
“Wow,” Mica had said the first time they’d met, staring up at the massive woman. “You’re ginormous.”
“You’re very observant. Start running,” Rebekah said and pointed to a path behind her. It wound its way around the disguised Seer building.
“I’ll tell you when you can stop.”
Stephen laughed, throwing his head back. “How I pity and envy you,” he said, and Mica wasn’t sure who he was talking to.
During training, Mica and Rebekah would run laps together. They’d lift heavy things. They’d do too many sit-ups, and then Rebekah would order her to do more. So she would.
“Hey, you ever smile?” Mica asked as she did pull-ups on a bar between two trees. Most days, they trained outside in the growing cold. Mica liked being out in the cold and the wind and the clouds. Once, it had even snowed.
“Yes,” Rebekah said with a frown. “Two more.”
And Rebekah taught her how to fight. Apparently, self-defense was just another subject taught to Unseen children, just like science and composition. She taught Mica how to use short sticks and bo staffs and tonfas. She taught her how to punch, kick, take a hit, break an elbow, kick out a knee, and disarm someone with a knife. But she never taught Mica how to use a gun.
The Unseen did not use guns on the mountain. They preferred to use quiet weapons, personal and precise. And Mica remembered all these movements like she remembered how to breathe, she just did. She’d forgotten how much she loved to move.
Between her work assignment and dinner and lessons and physical training, Mica felt stretched thin. The weight of her future grew heavier and heavier. The only things that helped were her detours and the little stash of stolen items she kept in her dresser.
The stolen items were… she wasn’t sure what. Sometimes she’d get an itch and snatch a mug. A glove. A hairpin. And the detours were an accident. She got lost coming back to the apartment one day and found herself on a trail up the mountain lined with ferns. Instead of turning around, she’d followed it. The path led her around the mountain to the waterfall, and she found a little nook overlooking the Council Building.
From her hideout, she watched the people and the river. The river streamed over the Unseen Eye, the symbol of the Unseen City. It was a simply carved eye, veiled behind the waterfall, but always watching. But Mica watched, too. After her roiling emotions from the day had quieted, she would return down the path back to the apartment and Stephen.
Stephen asked questions. He didn’t ask anything too strange, but there was always something about the way he asked that made Mica uneasy.
“Where were your parents from?” he asked as they studied a map of the world. It was so much bigger than Mica had ever imagined.
“West Six,” she said, but Africa had stolen her attention.
“Are you sure?”
“As sure as I can be. Why? What’s… South Africa? I thought this whole thing was Africa?”
“No reason. And it is. That’s just one country on the continent.”
A few days later, he asked, “Hey, you ever live in Windrose? Or go there?”
They chopped vegetables into piles of green and red and orange.
“No. So you’ve never been to a Windrose Health Center?”
“Huh-uh. Never even been to a normal Health Center,” she said and immediately kicked herself for it. She’d been talking more freely with Stephen, trusting him, and she had to remind herself not to.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Guess I was just healthy. Why do you ask?” She stopped chopping and looked at him.
So no blood transfusion? No. And you’re sure your parents weren’t from Windrose? Yes. Did they ever travel when you were small? No. What about your grandparents? Never knew them.
The questions were varied and occasional, and he always changed the subject quickly. She couldn’t figure out what he was fishing for. In general, she couldn’t figure Stephen out at all. His smile was easy, and he laughed often, mostly at her, but sometimes he seemed so sad sometimes it startled her.
Yet she asked her own questions, and he never hesitated to answer. His favorite book was by an Unseen poet. He would be nineteen years old in May. Seer training is very difficult and complicated. Of course, they don’t have a Watcher to practice on, so they use other methods.
“And how does your staff eliminate Watchers?”
“Electrical shock. Very effective for both Watchers and lazy students. Get back to math.”
And she asked about Aaron. Apparently, Aaron was a turd growing up, but that didn’t surprise her. No, they weren’t close, but they were the only family they had left. Parents died when Stephen was six, Aaron was just entering the Office of Military and Intelligence, so Stephen had gone to live with Alayla. Mica wondered what that was like, but didn’t ask.
“My parents died too,” she said, but she kept her eyes on a timeline of the Unseen.
Stephen only nodded.
Stephen slammed her book shut.
“Hey! I was reading that,” she said. She’d actually been staring at the page, trying not to fall asleep.
“Yeah. Sure you were. You’ve had enough studying. Time to relax.” With that, he walked out of the apartment. “Coming?”
Flustered, Mica had scrambled for her boots and followed. That was their first Friday night.
Each Friday was something different. Sometimes they would buy desserts in the market, a cold and smoky cave smelling of cinnamon and rock and freshly baked bread. Sometimes he would take her to the library and let her browse the books, select one, and take it home. Sometimes they would hike to the top of the mountain where Mica would watch the golden and red light fade while Stephen flung his head back to the sky and breathed in the growing darkness.
She often forgot herself and enjoyed those times. Shame couldn’t keep up with them on her skinny, bony legs, losing them in the crowd or down the steep mountain path. But she always caught up to Mica in the end, tut-tutting and wide-eyed.
“What is Juliette’s Prophecy?” Stephen asked. He washed the dinner dishes as Mica dried them and put them away.
Mica winced. She was supposed to memorize it last night but had fallen asleep on her book.
“What did Juliette foresee?”
“Juliette foresaw… Henrietta Loraine, Eternal Mother of Ghosts….” That part she remembered. “Something-something about coffins in her basement and Foxes of doom.”
Stephen shook his head and recited, “Juliette foresaw Henrietta Loraine, Eternal Mother of Ghosts. She rules a nation with fear and her waking ghosts. She hunts the Unseen. Beneath her house are coffins. But the Fox will return, and he will raise Perseus to bring Loraine’s doom. Perseus will bring three coffins, end the evil, and wake the ghosts. Perseus will be our light. Algol is falling. Perseus is coming. Cetus will die.”
Mica stuck her tongue out and rolled her eyes. Despite her flippancy, she knew she was struggling. If she didn’t know this stuff, she wouldn’t pass her exams.
“Do you remember what Algol and Cetus are?”
“Algol is Nova. It means the decline of Nova and the coming of Perseus. Cetus is some monster with snakes for hair.”
“Close enough. How about you work on that tonight?” he asked, handing her a mug.
“And what are the Seven Offices?”
“We’ve been over this already,” Mica said, putting a mug into the cabinet.
“Then, you should know this by heart.”
“Agriculture and Commerce, Housing and Development, Education, Defense and Surveillance, and Military Strategy and Intelligence, and….”
“And I’m thinking.” Mica screwed her face up in concentration as if that would help and waved her dishcloth around.
“Medicine….” Stephen prompted.
“Medicine and….” Nothing. She had nothing.
“Technology. I knew that.”
“Right. And how does the Council work?”
“The elected head of each Office is given a seat on the Council, each with an equal vote. Lots of people, good decisions,” she paraphrased.
“That’s right. No one person leads. ‘There is no one leader, for there is wisdom in many councilors.’ Transparency and honesty are our highest values.”
“Then what’s the deal with the Seers?”
“What do you mean?” Stephen added more hot water to the sink and began scrubbing the pans.
“I mean, I know you meditate all day and do your chi-cha, or whatever, when I’m in the fields, but your whole training process is super secretive.”
“We have no secrets.”
“Yeah, right,” Mica said, playfully smacking him with her towel. “Where do you train? No one even knows where this secret City of Salt is.”
“Our training facility and the City of Salt are separate from the Unseen City for safety reasons. For our protection just as much as for the city’s, yeah,” he said with a grin, but it quickly fell from his face. “It is our great honor and solemn duty to offer our lives in service.”
Mica winced at his sudden and serious shift in tone. “Yeah, I know all that. But isn’t it too much to ask?”
“You aren’t blind. I mean, not yet. What, are they going to… how do they… I mean… what really happens when you take your oath?”
“I lose my vision to gain another. Simple as that.”
Mica flushed. “They shouldn’t do that—it’s wrong. They shouldn’t ask you to do that.”
“We’re not blinded, not anymore. We take an oath not to remove our blindfolds.”
“But it’s not fair.”
“No,” Stephen said. “It’s never fair. But I don’t do this lightly. If this is how I can help my people, my city, then I will.”
“Some things are worth sacrificing for.”
Work in the fields. Lessons with Stephen. Practice with Rebekah. One night off. Repeat.
And months passed.
And winter fell.
And her lessons got harder and harder, and her chances of passing the exam got smaller and smaller. But she kept the faces of her family firmly in front of her. They flicked through her mind and gave her strength. As the months passed, to her surprise, she found that another face joined theirs: Stephen’s.
She jolted awake, her heart racing. She’d fallen asleep wondering what Stephen’s face looked like without his Seer mask, and had dreamed of his smile. But hushed voices outside her door had awakened her. The moon and stars told her it was late, and the chill in the air told her morning was a long way off. She stared into the shadows, listening to the wind and the soft voices. Stephen and Aaron– arguing again. They argued most nights after she’d gone to her room.
Curious, she got up and carefully tiptoed through the shadows and puddles of moonlight to the door, but their voices faded and went silent. Aaron’s footsteps disappeared into his room, and Stephen shifted, making himself comfortable on the bench for the night. She slipped back to bed and pulled the blanket tight around her. Shame’s eyes glowed at her like a cat’s from across the room.
While she couldn’t tell for sure what they argued about, she knew: they were arguing about her. What were they going to do with her when she failed? She hoped that Aaron was fighting for her, begging Alayla to give her more time and pleading with Stephen to try harder, but she doubted. And she drifted back to sleep. Shame kept watch.
Mica sat on her rock above the Council Building with a handful of fresh blueberries in her pocket, watching the important people go in and out. She popped a blueberry in her mouth and savored the tangy sweetness made sweeter by the fact that they were stolen. Annie had her scrubbing the toilets at the back of the fields all day. Today had been nothing but shit. Irritated, she’d swiped a handful of berries on the way out and had come straight to her rock to cool off.
She popped another berry into her mouth and tried to relax, but a familiar voice below her on the path caught her attention. Aaron. She flattened herself against the rock, just in case. No one could see her, way up here shielded by evergreens and mountain shadows, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Aaron walked down the path from the Council Building below her, his footsteps muffled by the roaring water.
“Yes… yes, I know,” Aaron said into a communicator against his ear. “One moment,” he said. He came closer, edging away from the Council Building and the water, and Mica lay still against the cold stone and listened.
“All right, can’t hear anything next to the waterfall,” he said. “Yes… yes…. Well, keep trying… I know. But Watchers are resilient. He can take at least, what, two tests a day before his heart gives out?…. Well, we can’t afford to treat him as human, can we? There’s too much at stake… I know we only have one, but we have one, so we need to use him… as the head of Seers, you know what this could mean not just for the Seers, but for the entire city…. Tell Colonel Mason when it’s done. Just imagine what we could learn from a mind like that.”
Mica’s heart fluttered, and her mouth went dry, but she forced herself to swallow. The Unseen had a Watcher, and they were experimenting on him.
“I know…” Aaron continued. “Dr. Henderson will be a great asset and could complete their work… Yes, it would be very meaningful to me personally… Cassandra might have found Henderson, but I spent the most time with the good doctor. We are working on an extraction plan, but it looks like I might need to go to Windrose myself. It seems the doctor is a bit jumpy and doesn’t trust our contact there… Yes, this could change everything. Will change everything. Inform Colonel Mason when it’s done.”
And then he left, and his footsteps washed away in the sound of the waterfall. Mica sat up and threw the rest of the blueberries into the bushes. Her mind raced, and her eyes unfocused as she thought. The Unseen had a Watcher.
Her first reaction was fear—blind, white, shrieking fear. One of those things she’d been trying to escape, one of those things which ruined her life, was here.
Yet… despite her fear, an aching, tender feeling filled her, and she flinched at it. Pity, that old man with weak limbs and trembling mouth, appeared at her elbow with hands clasped in prayer. Whatever the Watchers were, she didn’t think experimenting on them was right. Her stomach turned sour at the thought of the Unseen scientists running experiments on someone and not even caring whether he lived or died.
She thought back to her conversation with Alayla when she’d first arrived, and all the things that Alayla had told her with disgust. Alayla had pretended to be open and honest, but she had been lying through her teeth. What else was she lying about? And that must be how the Seers train—with a real Watcher. All their fancy meditation and bullshit—they were liars, using whoever it was they had locked up as a guinea pig and training on him.
And Aaron knew. Mica felt the air rush out of her lungs. Not only knew, but was encouraging them to experiment on him. The coolness in Aaron’s voice, the way he had talked about this Watcher like he was just a slab of meat, made Mica nauseous. A cold feeling settled in her belly as she remembered that pale and calm thing she’d seen in Aaron. She had known then that he was something to fear, but she had forgotten. She wouldn’t be trusting him anymore.
Turns out the Unseen weren’t as good as they claimed to be.
And then there was Stephen. He’d also been lying to her, and she hated him for it.
She didn’t want to think about Stephen anymore.
Mica shoved him from her thoughts and wondered what else the Unseen were lying about, got up, and ran down the mountain to beat Aaron back to the apartment.