Last time we saw MICA… (click for recap)
After overhearing that Aaron and Colonel Mason are experimenting on a Watcher in secret, Mica wonders how much Stephen knows about his brother and the Seers. While working in the fields, a girl asks Mica if she knows the man in the Empty Places healing Burners. They say he’s from her hometown: West Six. Mica confronts Aaron and Stephen about the rumor, but Aaron only says they’re looking into it. When she insists on helping verify the man’s identity, Aaron refuses, and it comes out that all Mica’s hard work was for nothing: she will not be allowed to take the exams and join the Unseen Military. She will be taken to another country, and she and her Burned family will be forgotten about. But Mica isn’t the only one blindsided: Stephen is no longer needed to look after Mica, and that was never his purpose. He was only there so that Aaron could convince him not to join the Seers. Having failed, Stephen will be sent away to the City of Salt, leaving Mica alone. With Stephen gone, and her departure imminent, Mica’s hopes of finding her family are all but gone…
Mica lay awake most of the night, flicking her lighter on and off, on and off in the dark. She watched the moon skim across the horizon and tried to untangle her thoughts, but nothing helped. Eventually, she fell asleep, and the moon kept watch.
She awoke to sounds outside her door. Someone was up and walking around. A low conversation. For a moment, Mica hoped that Stephen was back, and she lay in bed listening for his voice. She rubbed at her eyes, but it was still dark. The moon winked at her.
A knock on her door.
“Mica,” Aaron said. “Come out here, please.”
“What?” she asked, zipping up her jumpsuit and opening the door, hopeful that Stephen would be leaning against the wall or smirking at her from the bench. But she saw only Aaron. He stood dressed in his uniform and ready, his coat and boots on, his briefcase in hand. Then she saw the soldier standing at attention by the front door. Mica froze. “What’s going on?” she asked, suddenly uneasy. “What’s with the uniform?”
“There’s been a change in plans,” Aaron said. “I have been called back to Windrose. Today.”
“Today?” Mica kicked at the door absently. It was solid wood.
“Yes. You will be staying with Colonel Mason until arrangements can be made to get you out of Nova.”
A flare of panic warmed Mica’s chest. “Alayla? I have to stay with her? Why can’t I just stay here?”
“It’s protocol. No refugee who has not yet been cleared can be housed alone. And it’s, Colonel Mason.”
“I thought I was cleared,” she said and looked to the soldier.
Aaron blinked. “You were cleared on a trial basis. The trial is now over.”
That was it. She was done for, and he was leaving.
“So this is it then,” she said. “What, are you going back to Windrose to save more undeserving and uneducated refugees? Maybe you should try and save someone more worth your time. Like a politician or a scientist or a doctor.” She knew what she was doing, poking at his secret, but she couldn’t help it. She could always deny knowing anything. What would she know anyway? She was just a nobody from some cursed and unlucky village.
Aaron adjusted his grip on his briefcase. “Mica, I am… sorry it worked out this way. Good-bye. It’s been… interesting.”
“Pack up before you leave for your work assignment this morning. Private Manns will escort you to your work assignment and later to Colonel Mason’s quarters,” he said nodding to the soldier in the corner.
And with that, he left, leaving Mica and the soldier to stare at each other.
“I’m just going to get ready, so,” she said, gesturing back into her room.
As she closed her door, Mica felt panic’s stubby fingers on her neck and scalp. She paced the tiny room, flicking her lighter on and off. If she went to Alayla’s, she’d be watched the whole time, sent south, and never be able to get back into Nova. She’d never find her family. So this was her last chance. She had to escape now, today, and find the man who restored Burners. But how to escape?
The mountain was crawling with Unseen soldiers and Seers, she’d never make it halfway down the mountainside. Even if she did make it past the Seers and soldiers, she didn’t know where this man was. She would have to walk up and down the Empty Places, searching for him. And all that even before she found her family, which she didn’t even know how to do.
She pushed the heels of her palms into her eyes and groaned. She knew what she had to do—she had to find Stephen. He was the only one who could help her. But none of that mattered if she couldn’t get out of the apartment.
It was hopeless. So she did the only thing she could think to do.
She opened the window.
A cold wind filled her little room and ruffled the blankets on her bed. She knew it would be cold, but she didn’t realize how cold. She swore under her breath as she remembered she’d left her gloves, hat, and jacket by the front door. She’d have to make do with the lighter spare jacket in the closet. As she pulled the jacket on, she wondered if she should take anything else, and she opened her little drawer of stolen goods.
Pens, spoons, socks, buttons, and a random collection of hairpins stared up at her from the drawer. Mica felt shame’s wide eyes watching her. Part of her wanted to dump the drawer out over the cliff, but she didn’t want to make any noise. Also, it didn’t matter now anyway. Either she’d make it out of the Unseen, or she wouldn’t.
As the sky warmed with the sunrise, Mica leaned out her window.
She couldn’t go down, down was a hundred feet, probably more, of flat rock. But above her were trees and sky. The apartment must be near the top of the mountain, and if she could just get there, she could get her bearings and find her way down to the Seer complex.
She took a few deep breaths, then pulled herself out onto the windowsill, and started climbing.
It was farther to the top of the mountain than she thought, and soon her fingers were numb. But there was no going back, so on she climbed. As she climbed, it was as if the only things in the world were rock, wind, and her pounding pulse. She slipped a few times, and the world spun, rock and sky and clouds, but she kept her grip and climbed on.
After what felt like ages, Mica reached a flat place, the top of the mountain, and collapsed. Everything burned, but she’d made it. When she sat up and looked back, the sun was still hidden behind the horizon, but everything was pink and gold and baby blue. But Mica didn’t have time to admire the view. She scrambled to her unsteady feet and began her hike down the other side of the mountain.
Since she was on top of the world, she could see the entire chasm and the city. She knew they were looking for her by now, so she had to run. They’d be scouring this mountain soon enough. So she ran through the forest down the mountain, her head swiveling left and right, searching for soldiers and Seers and half expecting to see Aaron or Alayla’s angry face appear from behind a tree.
Mica swore loudly. She’d tripped over a root and banged her shins on a rock. Her hike down the mountain was taking too long. She was tired, cold, hungry, knew they were looking for her, and bruising both shins brought her nearly to tears. She stood up and brushed the freezing dirt from her shaking knees, determined to keep going, but when she looked up, a Seer stood not ten feet from her.
She froze. The Seer’s gray beard lifted in the breeze, and he raised his face to the sunny sky. It was over. Mica thought for sure she’d been caught, but the Seer didn’t move. She and the Seer stayed unmoving in the quiet of the mountain. Mica tried not to breathe or swallow or move. The Seer stood with his head raised to the heavens. Over her pounding pulse, she wondered how he didn’t know she was there. If he did know, surely he would have captured her by now. Even blind, maybe especially blind, these Seers were fighters she didn’t want to cross.
Something moved in the bushes, rustling the dry leaves, and the Seer turned his head to the sound. Mica waited. The Seer moved off towards the noise, his hands out, his feet quiet and sure.
When the Seer was out of sight, Mica finally dared to move and slipped quietly down the mountain.
She saw four other Seers. All stood waiting, watching. But this time, she was ready, and she slipped by unnoticed.
By the time she reached the Seer complex, she was sweating. She’d run all the way down the mountain, her path twisting and curling between the dark shade under the trees, until she came to the Seer’s training ground. At the edge of the grounds, she’d camped out in a bush long enough to catch her breath and make sure no Seers were on the move. Then she headed for the door, walking briskly like she was supposed to be there.
The door was in sight, so close, when a shadow filled the path, and Rebekah stepped out from behind the trees.
“You’re early,” Rebekah said.
“Yeah. Well, I am. Excuse me.” Mica tried to push her way past, but Rebekah moved to block her. Her breath ghosted and swirled in front of her. Mica wondered if Rebekah knew they were looking for her. Hopefully not, but fear’s white hands appeared on the branches of a tree, and Mica was afraid.
“You are not with our office,” Rebekah said. “You are not allowed inside the complex unsupervised.”
“I’m not unsupervised. I just need to… I need to see Stephen. He’s supervising me. More lessons.” Rebekah did not react and only stared. “I need… I need to talk to him,” Mica said. “Please.”
“You’re supposed to be at your work assignment.”
“It’s… it’s personal,” she said and flinched. But Rebekah planted her feet and set her massive hands on her hips.
“Go back to your work assignment, Mica.”
Not willing to tell her the truth, rage filled Mica, red and hot and fizzling. “Just let me through.”
Rebekah circled her. “I am charged with keeping the Seers and the Unseen City safe. I do not take that responsibility lightly. And neither should you.”
Mica turned to keep Rebekah in sight. “Why? I’m not one of you. You all have made that very clear. I’m not smart enough, I’m not skilled enough, I’m not special enough, and I’m not one of you. It’s not my responsibility to keep any of you safe.”
“No? But why should I trust you? Like you said, you’re not one of us. And you never will be. You’re probably a Novan spy, aren’t you?”
A flash of anger filled her vision with red, and she charged Rebekah with a battle cry. They collided with a slam, birds scattered and screeched above them like black meteors whistling through the dawn, back to their solar homes. Mica and Rebekah tussled in the cold dirt, stick and twigs biting into Mica’s knees and scraping her shins.
And then Mica was on her back, staring up at the tall woman above her as stars spun before her eyes. Then Rebekah slapped her hard across the cheek. Hard.
“Stay down,” Rebekah said as she got to her feet. She hadn’t even broken a sweat.
Mica touched at her jaw, touched at the numb and red handprint she was sure was there. Despite all Mica’s training, Rebekah had ended their fight far too quickly. If this was her one chance to get to Stephen and escape, she had failed miserably. Fury filled her as she got to her feet and charged Rebekah’s back.
She didn’t even see the tonfa in Rebekah’s hand before it struck her hip, crumpling her. Pain exploded in dark and blue stars, and Mica found herself on the ground, again staring up at the morning sky, wondering if her leg was broken.
“I said, stay down. You’re done.”
“No,” Mica said. She pushed herself to her feet and faced Rebekah. “We’re not done.”
“Mica, give it up. You will be sent south, that’s the best thing for everyone.”
“It’s not the best thing for my family. They’re still stuck in Nova.”
“But they’re not your family anymore, they’re Burners. They’re nobody. You know that.”
“No, they’re not.”
“Give it up, Mica. It’s hopeless, and you know it. Your family is gone for good.”
But Mica thought about the man in the Empty Places. As long as he was out there, there was a chance that she could save her family. It wasn’t hopeless, not yet.
“No, it’s not hopeless,” she said. “It’s not. It’s not!”
And her world exploded in red. She felt heat, prickling and sharp and sizzling.
And Rebekah stared at her.
“Praise the Prophets,” Rebekah said. “He was right.”
Without a word of explanation, Rebekah turned and strode towards the Seer complex. Mica looked around, wondering if soldiers were behind her ready to take her in. But she realized she’d been standing on a bed of red flowers and quickly stepped off of them. She wondered why she didn’t see them before.
“Coming?” Rebekah called over her shoulder without stopping.
Mica hesitated, then followed with fists at her sides. While she didn’t question Rebekah’s sudden change of heart, she would keep her guard up, just in case. Rebekah led her to the Seer complex and swiped her card at the large metal door. Inside, Rebekah led her over the textured floors, around softened corners, and down stairless tunnels. The complex was empty, giving the usual calming atmosphere a strange and foreboding edge.
“Where is everybody?” Mica asked. Her voice should have echoed, but the softened walls and corners muffled her words.
“Most are keeping watch farther down the mountain. Others are preparing. Some have already left.”
Mica wanted to ask what they were preparing for and where they were going, but Rebekah opened a door and ushered her inside, shutting the door behind them.
Inside was a dark little apartment swept clean. It, like the rest of the complex, was soft yet pragmatic. It reminded Mica of a monk’s cell. A bed, a washbasin, a desk, and a single chair. A Seer sat with his back to the door, resting with his feet up on the desk. Mica couldn’t tell who it was with the black mask tied over his head.
“You were right,” Rebekah said.
“Of course, I was right. About what?” he said and tilted his head back towards them with a grin, and she recognized him. Stephen.
“Stephen!” she said.
“Mica? What are you doing here?” he asked, sitting upright and returning his feet to the ground. There was an urgency and something cold in his voice. Fear. Fear had slipped in on soft feet before Rebekah had closed the door.
“I need to talk to you,” Mica said as she sat on the desk opposite Stephen. She eyed Rebekah.
“I’m not leaving,” the tall woman said, spreading her wide hands out.
Mica shifted, unsure.
“It’s all right, you can talk in front of her,” Stephen said. He leaned forward so their heads were close together, and Mica felt his breath on her cheeks. She wondered if this was really a good idea, but then decided she didn’t have a choice.
“I have to get out of here,” she said, shifting away from him just slightly. He smelled like sandalwood and pine. “I can’t go south,” she said.
Stephen rubbed at his jaw. “But that’s best. That’s safest.”
“I don’t care. I’m not going south. I won’t leave Nova without my family.”
He sighed. “Well, then we’re stuck, aren’t we? If you won’t leave, then I can’t keep you safe, can I?”
Her mouth opened in surprise, but her heart ached at his words, and she wanted them to be true.
All these years, she had taken care of Anda and Ben and ached for them to be safe. Despite being younger, she’d kept Ben safe. She had done the hard work on the farm so that Ben wouldn’t have to, always saying she enjoyed it so he wouldn’t feel bad. She had carried the sacks of potatoes home from the market with burning arms and chopped the firewood and cared for Sylvia, all so Ben wouldn’t have to.
She had comforted Anda when she had woken up gasping for breath after a nightmare, then sung her back to sleep with her favorite song, the one of water and wind and sea billows. She had kept Anda safe from soldiers and incoherent Burners and that strange and unknowable sadness that had at times overwhelmed and threatened to strangle Anda right before her eyes.
And she had even protected Peter, even though she knew she didn’t have to. She had distracted the soldiers so they would ignore Peter and his scars and tattoos. She had helped him get started in the West Six Black Market, introducing him to Viola and telling her what a talented and wonderful artist Peter was. She had never asked about his past.
While she did everything she could to take care of those she loved, she had always known that it was up to her to keep them all safe, and that no one would take care of her.
But now someone wanted to take care of her, and the relief was almost a tangible warmth. She flushed. But she still had people to take care of.
“Please, I have to find this man who’s healing Burners and find my family. All I need is for you to get me out of the Unseen. I’ll figure it out from there.”
“It’s not that simple. You can’t just go wandering around Nova, it’s not safe.”
“And it’s so safe here? Come on. I know what the Unseen are really like.”
“We’re trying to take care of you, to keep you safe.”
“Sure, tell that to the Watcher. I’m sure he doesn’t feel very safe.”
His head tilted. “What?”
Rebekah didn’t move, but she felt a change ripple through the tall woman.
“The Watcher you have,” Mica said. “I know what your Seer scientists do to him. It’s not safe here for anyone… don’t you know?” she asked before she could think about it. She had to know the truth about Stephen—did he know about the Watcher or not?
“What do the Seer scientists do to him?” Stephen’s jaw clenched, and Mica knew he wasn’t talking to her.
“Stephen,” Rebekah said, her voice had a warning in it. “Some things are best kept in the past.”
“They experiment on him,” Mica said, ignoring Rebekah and keeping her focus on Stephen. “Didn’t you know?” she asked and stared hard.
But Stephen shook his head. “No. I didn’t know that.”
Mica nodded as relief filled her head like too much oxygen. She believed him: he didn’t know.
“Is this true?” he asked, turning to Rebekah.
The tall woman shook her head at Mica. “Yes,” she said. “It’s true.”
“Does Aaron know? And Alayla? They wouldn’t let this happen. They’ll stop it.”
Mica shifted and tugged at her braid. “Stephen, I heard Aaron talking about it. He knows. And Alayla knows too.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, standing and turning to Rebekah with his staff out like a threat.
Rebekah only looked the boy up and down. “You didn’t need to know.”
“Of course, I needed to know. My own brother is doing this, and no one tells me?”
Rebekah studied him, then decided something. “We were trying to recruit you,” she said.
“There is a rebellion growing among the Seers. Loraine isn’t the only dictator in Nova.”
Mica almost laughed. How could the rebels have their own rebels? Wasn’t Loraine enough of an enemy for them all? Apparently, not when Alayla was in power.
Stephen lowered his staff. “I don’t understand. Why?”
Rebekah took a step forward. “Secrets in the Unseen have been growing. Spreading. It’s not just about the Watcher they’re experimenting on. We need to keep our borders safe, but this is not the way. There is a group of us who are working to stop the experiments, but Alayla has gained too much power and influence, and she needs to be stopped.”
“But Alayla’s not… you make it sound like she’s evil.”
“I didn’t say that. But she is working towards an end by any means necessary, and we cannot stop her alone.”
“So, what then?” Stephen asked. “Why recruit me? I’m like a son to her. She took me in and raised me—why would I help you?”
“Why do you think she doesn’t want you to be a Seer? She’s afraid you’ll find out about the Watcher and join us. Your training has been unique so that you would not find out about the Watcher.”
“No. I trained just like every other Seer.”
“No. They trained you so that you would never know what was really going on. But it is time you know what they’re doing, and why we need you. Winning over the adopted son of the most powerful woman in the Unseen, the brother of the man spearheading the current experiments and inventing new ones? That would be a coup, indeed. Then we would have a chance.”
Stephen was quiet, and Mica wondered if he was going to say anything or not. “But how can I trust any of you now?” Stephen finally asked.
“Everyone has been lying to me.”
Rebekah gave a sad smile. “I really don’t know. But it’s the truth. And I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to be the one to destroy the memory of your parents.”
“My—what does this have to do with them?”
“They were the scientists who began these studies.”
Mica watched Stephen. His jaw clenched, and all his muscles went tense. “No. They worked for the Seers, but their job was studying and understanding how to bring Seers sight back after their service. They were trying to help the Seers regain their sight.”
“No, that was just their cover story. They started the experiments on the Watcher. To do what, I don’t know. But it went well, and eventually, they got hold of… a new subject,” Rebekah said. She shot Mica a glance, and Mica had no idea what it meant.
“And the fire? The lab accident? Was that a lie too?” Stephen asked.
“No. There really was a lab accident and a fire. They were experimenting on their new subject when something went wrong. She started a fire, and all three died. Now Aaron is trying to finish their work, and we have to stop him. I’m sorry, Stephen,” she added softly.
It made sense now. Mica understood why Aaron got so upset with Stephen when they talked about their parents. It was much more complicated than she’d realized. And that fire wasn’t just any fire—it was because of a Watcher.
Stephen turned his head to Mica. “Then we have to get her out, don’t we?”
Mica blinked. “Why are you looking at me?”
“Tomorrow morning,” Rebekah said. “There’s a transport going south. We’ll hide her here until then.”
“Wait a minute, I’m not going South,” Mica said, rising to her feet. “I just want off this stupid mountain. Then I’m going to find my family.”
Rebekah looked at her with a frown. “We have to get you as far away from the Unseen and from Nova as possible. Weren’t you listening?”
“Of course I was listening, I’m right here. But none of that has anything to do with me. And it doesn’t matter if Novan soldiers find me, I can’t tell them where your city is. Just let me go.”
Rebekah looked to Stephen with a question on her face.
“She doesn’t know,” Stephen said, and Rebekah looked taken aback.
Mica looked from one to the other and made a rude gesture, waiting for them to fill her in.
“How can she not?” Rebekah asked. “I saw it with my own eyes.”
“I’m not sure why she doesn’t know. But you don’t know, do you?” he said, turning to Mica.
“Stop doing that. Know what?” she asked, not even trying to hold back the frustration in her voice.
“Mica, we know your secret.”