Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
Mica adjusts to life in the Unseen, working in the fields, training with Rebekah, and studying with the enigmatic Stephen. Despite her best efforts, she’s falling further and further behind. Passing her exams and finding her family is a dream that is quietly slipping away. While taking it easy on the mountain, Mica overhears Aaron talking to the Head Seer. Aaron encourages him to experiment on the Watcher they have hidden, and they discuss Aaron’s upcoming trip to Windrose City to help a doctor escape. Shocked that the Unseen has a Watcher, and are experimenting on him, Mica wonders what else Aaron is hiding, how much Stephen knows, and if the Unseen can be trusted…
Mica returned to the apartment and got in the shower just in time. She didn’t want Aaron knowing she had taken a detour and ask where she’d been. Spying on the spy. She didn’t bother adjusting the temperature, and the cold water made her teeth chatter. As she scrubbed down in the frigid water, she tried to listen for the front door above the water, but her mind was elsewhere. On Stephen.
As hard as she tried, her thoughts kept going to him. Part of her felt betrayed. He had lied to her. He was a Seer, Seer in training, so he had been training with the Watcher, wasn’t he? No. Something wasn’t right. She knew Aaron would lie, and lie well, but Stephen was different.
Stephen always bought extra sweets to give to the librarians. Once he’d taken food to an old woman who was sick. Mica only found out about it because someone at the market thanked him. Stephen was kind. He’d never be all right with experimenting on someone, would he?
But surely he must know that they had the Watcher, but how could he stay when he knew? She had grown to like him and had wanted to trust him. Wasn’t he the only one being kind to her and actually helping her? The lavender soap smelled… off somehow, but she scrubbed harder.
Maybe he didn’t know about the experiments, she wondered. Maybe the training wasn’t… bad, and they took good care of the Watcher. But did that make it any better? Either way, what did that make Stephen? After everything, she so desperately wanted him to be good.
Maybe she heard the front door, maybe not. Either way, when she shut the cold water off and toweled her hair, Aaron was home. She could hear him and Stephen arguing in hushed voices, again, and she pressed her ear against the wall to hear. After what she’d heard about the Watcher, she wondered what else she might be missing.
Their voices rose, but she couldn’t make out the words, then hushed. Then rose again. Mica cursed under her breath and reached for the door. Maybe if she opened it carefully enough, she could hear.
“Yes, it’s a sacrifice,” Stephen said. “But it’s what needs to be done.”
A sacrifice that needs to be done. So Stephen did know about the Watcher. She couldn’t calm her swirling emotions, so she pushed them down as she leaned forward to hear more, but the door creaked, and Stephen and Aaron went quiet. She swore to herself and pushed the door open.
“Hi,” she said, entering the living space and running a hand through her tangled hair.
“Evening,” Aaron said without turning when she entered the kitchen area.
“What’s cooking?” she asked, trying to sound natural and leaned against the wall. “I’m starving. Annie had me scrubbing toilets all day. Well, maybe I’m not that hungry after all.”
Stephen raised his head and smiled at her voice. “Quinoa, black beans, and vegetables,” he said amicably. But Aaron’s jaw was clenched, and Stephen’s neck was red. They were still angry. Maybe she could use that.
Mica considered for a moment as Aaron added spices to the pot. Garlic. Oregano. Something else she couldn’t identify. Then she decided. “What were you talking about?” she asked.
“Nothing of interest,” Aaron said.
Stephen did not answer.
“Oh, come on, it was something juicy. What’s going on? Alayla sentence more refugees to a lifetime of learning?”
“It’s a family matter.” Aaron gave her a look. His eyes hidden behind shining glasses.
“No, it’s fine,” Stephen said with a forced smile. “Aaron is trying to convince me to quit the Seers,” he said. The way he said it was an accusation, but Mica wasn’t sure why it would be. She twisted a damp, cool strand of hair around a finger and pretended to be very interested in it.
So that’s what they had been fighting about—Stephen joining the Seers. Turns out it had nothing to do with her. But could it still have something to do with the Watcher?
“Why would he want to do that?” she asked. “Isn’t it an honor to be a Seer or some bullshit like that?”
Aaron looked at her over his glasses. She threw her hands up and rolled her eyes apologetically. “It is,” he said.
“Well, either way,” she said. “I think the Seers are a load of crap.”
“They’re not crap,” Stephen said. “They serve a vital function.”
“Oh, what? Running around the forest scaring people half to death?” Mica plopped down on a chair and pretended to be very interested in the little braid she was weaving in her hair. “Please, all the Seers do is pretend to be all mysterious.”
“It is a little more complicated than that,” Aaron said and adjusted his glasses.
“Well, I agree with you, Aaron, I don’t think Stephen should be a Seer.” The metal and tang of bitterness like rust in her own voice startled her.
Stephen turned, spoon mid-air, dripping quinoa and hot oil on the floor. “Not you too.”
Mica blew a raspberry. “What, ‘not you too?’ I just agree with Aaron. Don’t join the stupid Seers. Do something real with your life. Geez, all the Seers do is sit and meditate, isn’t that all you do when I’m working? Boring.”
“We serve a real need. We protect our city from Watchers.”
And there it was. Mica kept her eyes on her hair. “But how would you even know? As far as I can tell, you’re the only one here who hasn’t actually had any experience with Watchers. Aaron’s lived in Windrose, and that place is crawling with Watchers. I’ve had one in my head. Cassandra had to shock it out of me. What experience have you had with Watchers way out here in the middle of nowhere? Not like there are Watchers ghosting around for you to practice on. That’s what you said, right? You don’t have watchers to practice on.”
She looked up and found Aaron watching her, but she couldn’t see his eyes behind the shine on his glasses. A chill ran down her spine.
“….practice and train other ways,” Stephen was saying, but Mica was watching Aaron. “It’s not a simple process, but it is effective. A live Watcher is not necessary for training.”
Mica grinned. He was lying right to her face. “Sure, sure. That’s all well and good,” Mica said, taking her eyes off of Aaron. “But when it comes down to it, you don’t know what a Watcher really feels like, if it feels like anything at all. It’s all right, I mean, it’s not that important. I’m just saying why join the Seers when you could do something… more? Without a Watcher to train with, this is all purely academic.”
Stephen stood very still. “It’s not just about being a Seer. Our parents were Seer scientists. That’s how they died. They died doing their jobs.”
“I didn’t know that,” Mica said. Her throat felt stuffed with cotton. Apparently, she’d put her foot in her mouth. Again. But something still wasn’t right. “But what does that have to do with you?”
“Everything. That’s why I want to do this. Because they dedicated their lives to the Seers, and it cost them theirs.”
“What happened?” Mica asked.
Aaron finally moved and got dishes out of the cabinet. “There was an accident. A fire.”
“Oh.” She wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but it wasn’t that. An accident.
Stephen cleared his throat. “They were working on how to restore the sight of Seers who had lost theirs after decades of disuse. Their work was good, and it helped people. That’s why I want to do this, and that’s why you can’t talk me out of it,” Stephen said. He tasted the meal. “This needs more salt.”
With that, they sat down to dinner.
Mica considered Stephen’s response. It rang true, but that didn’t mean much. Lies often seem like truth. She had trusted Aaron, but he wasn’t the man she thought he was, why should Stephen be? But that didn’t sit well in her gut either like a nonsensical answer to a simple question. Two plus two is potato. She just couldn’t believe that Stephen was capable of torturing someone. But could he?
The question ran round and round her mind as she headed to the fields. She turned it over like strange artifact from a distant culture, unsure if it meant something sinister or benevolent or just mundane, as she opened the door under the mountain to the fields and the work and the light.
Annie gave her an odd glance when she found him among the raspberry bushes, but she just shrugged it off. The girl with the rabbit hair stared at her openly, standing up amid the pallets of lettuce, their leaves like green and red petals, to see her. Others stared at her when they thought she couldn’t see. They whispered to each other and pointed at her. It was odd, but she brushed it off. She already had too much on her mind.
When she had first arrived, they had stared and whispered, but that soon died away to stony silence. They had all ignored her for the past few months, speaking to her only when necessary, but now when they stared and pointed and whispered. But it wasn’t like before. They did not have that same fear and disgust in their lips and eyes. This was something else, something strange and almost reverent, and it unsettled her.
Mica wondered if she had something in her teeth or on her face and checked them discretely. She found nothing. The Unseen continued to watch her, and Mica did her best to ignore them, her face red and sweating from embarrassment and the heat of work.
“What are you staring at?” she finally said, looking up at a couple of older women. They flustered and went back to work. “That’s what I thought. Leave me alone!”
Later Mica leaned back against the cave wall with a jug of water. She was on her break. Sweat poured down her back, and her hair was damp. Again.
The girl with the black rabbit hair moved through the towers of tomatoes, inspecting them. She did not seem to notice Mica, but Mica didn’t really care if she did or not. She was in her own little world of tomato leaves and basil pondering Stephen. Nothing had changed, yet everything had changed, and she didn’t know what to think.
“Do you know him?”
Mica looked up from her water jug to find the girl with the rabbit hair inspecting a tower of bright green tomatoes just a few feet from her. It was the first time the girl had spoken to her, other than to bark orders at her. Mica blinked in surprise.
“Know who?” she asked and took another sip of water.
The girl continued inspecting the leaves and did not look at Mica. Her weak jaw twitched like she was anxious, and her overbite became more pronounced somehow. “The man healing Burners,” she said. “Do you know him? Is it true? Is he really Perseus?”
“What are you talking about?” Mica asked, shaking her head. “Is someone giving Burners their memories back?”
The girl flicked her eyes to Mica, then back to her tomatoes. “That is what they say. They say the man in the Empty Places is from West Six. They say he is Perseus. Is it true? Do you know him?”
“Empty Places… someone from West Six is healing Burners in the Empty Places?”
“It’s all anyone is talking about. Do you know him?” she asked again. “You’re from there.”
“What? No. I mean, this is the first I’ve heard of it.” Her heart raced, and her mind staggered to keep up. “Is he really healing Burners? Giving them their memories back?”
“So they say,” the girl said.
“Who is he?”
The girl shrugged. “I thought you might know.”
Mica laughed. “Of course, I don’t know. If I knew someone who could heal Burners then… then…”
Then she would have gone to find her family ages ago.
Someone called out to the girl with a harsh voice, and the girl slipped away into the leaves and the bright green tomatoes, rabbit tail bobbing. Mica sat staring at the sea of ruffled green before her, rustling and swaying in the breeze from the giant fan.
Perseus or not, if someone out there was healing Burners, then this was her chance. She had to escape and find her family, but how? Her heart ached as she thought about seeing them all again. And, to her surprise, Stephen was there in her daydream, right next to her meeting her family and reuniting with Peter. If only….
Mica burst through the door, her hands shaking and tingling. Stephen stood over the stove and a bubbling pot, and the whole apartment smelled of herbs and salt and something rich and earthy like mushrooms.
“Stephen,” she said and rushed to him.
“Evening, Stinky,” he said, chipper as ever. “I could smell you from a mile away.”
“Is it true?”
“Of course. You smell terrible.”
“No, is it true?”
“The man healing Burners. In the Empty Places. They say he’s Perseus.”
“That,” he said, but his mouth turned down.
“What? Isn’t this good news?”
Mica studied him. Maybe she should tell him what she’d heard about the Watcher. If he already knew, then he already knew. But if he didn’t know about the Watcher, and he really was good, then maybe he could help her escape. Either way, she couldn’t let this man in the Empty Places, whoever he was, fall into Unseen hands. They’d dissect and analyze and study him to death. She couldn’t let that happen. So she decided.
“Stephen, I heard something the other day,” she said.
But the door opened, and Aaron entered. And Mica snapped her mouth shut. She’d have to get Stephen alone some other time.
“Evening,” Aaron said.
“Dinner’s ready,” Stephen said and turned back to the stove. The tension between them since their argument about the Seers was as thick and prickly as wool.
“I already ate,” Aaron said. He looked so tired. He spent most of his time working, and Mica wondered if he ever actually did anything else. But now she wondered just what kind of work he was doing.
“Is it true?” Mica asked. She took a bowl of mushrooms and quinoa from Stephen and set it on the table but didn’t sit.
Aaron turned to her slowly, his eyes cold and shining behind his glasses, and Mica caught a glimpse of that cold and observant thing. Then it was gone. “Is what true?” he asked.
“The man healing Burners?”
His eyes narrowed. “How did you hear about that?”
“How could she not?” Stephen asked as he sat. “It’s all anyone is talking about. News like that travels fast. Everyone around here is so superstitious that the first whiff of myth they go crazy. Can someone pass me the mushrooms?”
“And is it true or not?” she asked again, getting irritated that no one was answering her question.
Aaron studied her. “We don’t know yet, but we’re looking into it.”
“Mushrooms?” Stephen said, his hand out.
Mica ignored him. “I can help.”
“Why not? If this guy is from West Six, I can verify that. I grew up there so I know every single person in that village—let me help.”
“That won’t happen, Mica.”
“Mica, can you pass me the mushrooms?”
“Why not?” Mica asked Aaron.
“Because you haven’t completed your training. You haven’t even taken the Basic test to get to the training, and because we still don’t trust you.”
“This again? But I can be of real use—how else are you going to confirm if this guy is who he says he is?”
“We have ways. None of which are you authorized to know about.”
“Aaron, come on,” Mica ran her hands through her hair in anger. “Please, if I can help, I want to. Don’t you realize how important this is? Imagine what we could learn from a mind like that,” she said, parroting his own words about the Watcher before thinking. She stared hard at Aaron, unwilling to back down or admit anything on her face.
He moved in the light, and suddenly his eyes were clear behind his glasses. That thing, that calm and calculating and pale thing raised its head from deep inside and stared at her. Mica fought the urge to look away and stared down that strange and alien thing.
The sound of breaking glass. Mica and Aaron turned to look. Stephen had dropped the mushrooms, shattering the bowl.
“Great,” he said, standing up and reaching for his staff. “There goes dinner.”
Aaron looked at Mica, his eyes hidden behind shining glass. “Of course, we know how important this is. If it’s true, this will change everything, but we need to be rational and not do anything hasty or impulsive. That’s how people make mistakes and get their friends and family hurt.”
Mica flushed and shut her mouth. She wondered if he knew she’d gotten her family Burned. Shame raised her dirty head from the corner as if summoned, and came close enough that Mica could smell her hungry, rancid breath.
“Can someone clean that up?” Stephen said.
Mica looked over at him, ready to tell him to do it himself, but saw his hand. He clutched a dishcloth around his palm, the cloth soaking through with blood.
“You’re hurt,” she said, going to him and taking his hand in hers.
He flinched at her touch. “It’s nothing. Really.”
“How many times do I have to tell you to be careful?” Aaron said, but he began cleaning up the mess and picking ceramic shards out of their meal.
They stood in silence, but Mica wasn’t done talking yet. She would figure out how to get to the man in the Empty Places with or without Aaron. In the silence, she started clearing up the dishes herself. No one seemed hungry, and their rations had been wasted in the broken dish anyway.
“Mica is taking to the basic self-defense quite nicely. Better than I did,” Stephen said as if he could lighten the mood.
Mica scrubbed hard at a pot.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Aaron said, setting his fist gently onto the table. Mica opened her mouth to respond but realized that he was not speaking to her.
“What?” Stephen asked.
“You know what. Stop giving her false hope. There’s enough of that going around as it is.”
She frowned and wiped down a plate. False hope?
“It’s why I’m here, isn’t it? To help her prepare for the exam?” Stephen asked, gesturing around the room with his bloody dishcloth.
“Which I’m told you passed with flying colors. And you got high marks on the Office specific exam. That means you can have your pick of Offices and professions and find an assignment in the city. Maybe even in the Office of Defense and Surveillance.”
Stephen’s mouth lifted, but Mica couldn’t read his expression, not without his eyes. “Just not as a Seer, right?” Stephen said.
“You can still quit. You can take the Mask off and come home.”
Mica wiped down another plate and stared at the deep blue water swirls on the pottery.
Stephen let a smile slice his face. “I’ll come home as soon as you do.”
“It’s not the same, and you know it.”
“Of course, it’s the same. Why should I quit? Because I’m required to sacrifice something? Is that it?”
“Because it’s too much.”
“It sounds like it’s not too great a sacrifice if it’s Obed, or Hannah, but it is for me? That’s hardly fair.”
“But your vision,” Aaron said. Mica winced at the hurt and exasperation in his voice. He sounded just like Ben begging her, asking her why she would endanger them all, didn’t she care about them? And for a moment, she pitied him. “I still don’t understand,” Aaron continued. “There are so many other ways to serve, why this one?”
Stephen hesitated, and Mica could tell that he was frightened, although she didn’t know why.
“Because our parents gave up more than their vision.”
Mica knew this was a private conversation and wanted to leave, but Aaron blocked the exit, and she didn’t want to ask him to move.
Stephen continued. “They worked for the Office of Defense and Surveillance—”
“They were scientists. Follow in their footsteps, that way—”
“I’m no scientist. You know that. And even they gave up their lives in service to their country. I want to honor them and follow in their footsteps, and this is the best way I know how.”
Aaron looked at Stephen with down-turned eyes and shook his head. “Fine. I can’t convince you that this is a bad idea. You’ll do what you want. But your tutoring Mica stops now.”
“What! Why?” Mica cried out, looking up from the dish she had been drying for the past several minutes.
“Because I don’t want you to get your hopes up. Understand? Mica, you’re not going to pass the exam. I’ve been monitoring your progress, and you’re just too far behind.”
“I can work harder. I can—”
“No, Mica, you can’t. You’re just not going to pass.”
Mica’s jaw clenched with anger. “So, what are you going to do with me?”
“If you still want to stay in the Unseen, they’ll assign you to a permanent work position, and that will be that. And you,” Aaron said, turning to Stephen. “Since you’ve obviously made up your mind and will not see reason, then you are free to go.”
“I’m here to keep an eye on Mica.”
“Come on, Stephen. You weren’t really sent here for that.”
Stephen shook his head. “I was sent to tutor Mica and report back.”
So that was it: watch and report back. Mica had guessed as much, and a part of her was relieved it wasn’t anything more sinister. And if he didn’t know about the Watcher, maybe he would help her escape.
“Report to who?” Aaron asked, his forehead drawing together.
“Alayla, who else?”
But the way he said it, and the way Aaron didn’t react, Mica knew that was a lie. So if he wasn’t reporting about her to Alayla, who was he reporting to?
Aaron recovered himself. “Alayla didn’t send you here to spy on Mica. She sent you here so that I could convince you to quit the Seers. She had to recommend you for training, but she didn’t want to. She couldn’t show nepotism. But you’re like a son to her, and she didn’t want you to lose your sight either. Now, since I failed my task, you are free to go.”
“No, that’s not true,” Stephen said, but his voice trembled. “She told me she wanted someone to tutor and watch Mica—that’s what I’m doing. Why would she lie?”
Aaron shook his head. “She doesn’t want this path for you.”
Stephen’s jaw twitched. “Doesn’t matter. I’m not quitting, and I still have a few weeks before I take my oath. I don’t have to go back yet.”
“Yes. You do.”
“I have more time.”
“Stephen! You’re done. I failed, and you clearly won’t see reason. There’s a transport leaving for the City of Salt in three days, and you’ll be on it. Just go back to the Seers where you belong,” Aaron added, and there was venom in his voice.
Mica looked down at the plate in her hand, and something hot and prickly filled her, something fearful and anxious. If Stephen left for the City of Salt, then she would be alone again.
Stephen wrapped the now red cloth around his hand. “All right. I guess that’s that. I’ll go then.” He pushed his sleeves down and reached for his staff. Then he walked past Aaron and began packing his few belongings.
Something thick and painful bubbled up in the back of Mica’s throat. The thought of Stephen leaving was more upsetting than Mica would have liked to admit. What was she going to do without him now that her future had been decided for her?
“Alayla already made up her mind about me,” Mica said and faced Aaron, turning her back on Stephen. “Even if I passed the exam, she’d never let me join your military, would she?
Aaron blinked. “No. She would not have recommended that you continue your education even if you did pass the Basic exam. Since you’re so far behind, the exam is canceled, and you’ll be given a permanent assignment.”
“I don’t want your assignment. I want to get out of Nova,” she said.
Aaron nodded. “That’s fine. Then you’ll be sent south as soon as there’s a transport available. That’s the best we can do for you.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Mica saw Stephen let out a breath like a sigh. Mica shook her head. “You said, no more lies. You’ve been lying to me this whole time, haven’t you? I thought I had a real chance. You said, no more lies!”
“No, I said that you shouldn’t lie anymore. I’ve been doing my job, Mica. You should know that by now.”
“All I wanted to do was help you fight, why won’t you let me?”
“No, no more lies!” Aaron said, and his voice was harsh and sharp. “I know you’ve been lying about everything.”
“I know that you don’t care about the Unseen—you only want to use us to find your family. I know that, and Alayla knows that too. Eventually, you’ll try and find a way to get back to Nova to find them, and we can’t let you do that. It’s far too dangerous.”
Mica flushed. “Of course I want to find my family, why shouldn’t I?”
“Because it’s too dangerous. The risk to you, and to us, is far too great. And finding your Burners is impossible.”
“No, you said so yourself—you said the Unseen could find a Burner if they tried. And with this man healing Burners—”
“Theoretically, it’s possible to find a Burner. Yes. But we won’t. And this man, we don’t even know for sure that he can restore Burners yet. It’s all rumor. I’m sorry, Mica. We’ll be sending you south as soon as they can make the arrangements.”
“Want me out of here as fast as possible, huh?” she asked bitterly.
Aaron blinked. “I’m sorry it can’t be sooner, but there was an attack on a Burn factory a few months ago, and there are other… unforeseen circumstances. Security throughout the country has been heightened. It will take a bit longer than usual to find safe passage across the border, but they will get you out safely. Mica, this is for your own good.”
“Right. It’s for my own good to leave my family behind. Sounds familiar.” She saw Stephen shift uncomfortably.
Aaron rubbed the back of his neck. “Once out of Nova, you will be free.”
Mica held back an angry response. The last thing she wanted to do was leave Nova, not without Ben and Anda and Peter, but she wasn’t sure how to find her family now.
Stephen had gathered his things and had slung his pack over his shoulder. “Mica….”
She looked away from him, not that he could see, to hide tears. A queasy, scared feeling bubbled up in her gut.
“Mica, maybe this is for the best. Maybe you should go south. I hear it’s nice there.”
“Then maybe you should take off that ridiculous mask.”
“Ah. Well, good-bye, Mica. I’ve….” But Stephen stopped, turned without saying anything to Aaron, opened the door, and was gone. Mica listened to his staff, tapping away down the stone hallway until it faded to silence.
Aaron shook his head, went to his room, and closed the door softly behind him. Mica looked down at the rest of the unwashed dishes and the dirty water in the sink. She picked up a small spoon, the one they used to scoop the coffee, and weighed it in her hands. She slipped it into her pocket and escaped back to her room, terrified that she had no idea what to do next.