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Birthmarked, p.14
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       Birthmarked, p.14

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  "Where is he buried?" she demanded.

  "I can find out."

  "Where is my mother?"

  His eyes flicked strangely. "I don't know," he said.

  She took a small step toward him. "Is she still alive?"

  "I don't know that, either. I haven't heard of her death."

  "You don't know much, do you?" she asked.

  The brim of his hat kept his eyes in a line of shadow, but he stood quite still, watching her intently. It occurred to her that his watchfulness could well be an act, a learned shield for his feelings when he was disturbed or uncertain.

  "You know," he said mildly, "I'm making an effort to speak courteously to you."

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  She folded her arms more tightly around herself. She cared nothing for his courtesy or his chastisement. "Excuse me," she said bitingly. "I forgot. I'm supposed to be grateful to you, aren't I? You sent me an orange. Consider us even."

  His eyes narrowed. "I didn't-- "

  She heard a sudden intake of his breath. His gaze was directed above and behind her, to where a pair of women had paused on a higher street to look down at them. Their white dresses shone in the sunlight, and even from the distance, Gaia could tell they were both very pretty. The older woman wore a wide-brimmed hat, but the younger woman was holding her hat by the strap, and her blond hair, unfettered, blew lightly in the wind, causing her to hold it back briefly with her slender fingers. A slight flutter of those same fingers might have been a wave of greeting, but Gaia couldn't be sure.

  "Let's go," he said abruptly, and began walking more rapidly along the street.

  "Who are they?" she asked. She had to lengthen her stride to keep up with him.

  "My mother and sister," he said.

  "But they-- " Gaia was confused. They were obviously of the wealthiest class, the sort of people whose families didn't give up their sons to the guard.

  "Do they know the Protectorat?" she asked, wondering that they didn't ask for a favor to get Capt. Grey out of his service.

  He turned toward her again, and she saw a flash of dark pain and anger in his eyes. Then he looked at her strangely, as if she'd said something odd.

  "He's my father," Capt. Grey said.

  Gaia came to a standstill, stunned. Capt. Grey. He was Capt. Leon Grey. Formerly Leon Quarry, the oldest son of the Protectorat.

  "I know about you," she said wonderingly.

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  He drew out the sardonic syllables of his reply. "Is that right?"

  Capt. Grey took another two steps and turned to stop, too. He looked over his shoulder, but with the angle of the hill, they were no longer in view of his family. Gaia's mind was struggling to reconcile what she knew of this young man, this captain of the guard, with what she knew of the Protectorates son. The advanced one. Leon was the boy who had vanished from Tvaltar coverage years ago. Now she understood why he'd looked vaguely familiar when shed first met him: in her own childhood, she'd seen images of him as a boy, images ten meters tall. But he'd changed. Completely.

  "I don't understand," she said.

  His lips hardened in a straight line as he seemed to make a decision.

  "Come," he said, and with that he took her arm and guided her forward again, more urgently this time, and at the next turn, he took her left onto a narrow road that led downward, farther away from the center of town.

  "Where are you taking me?" she asked.

  But he didn't answer. In a few more paces, he opened a metal gate by reaching inside to a latch, and guided her into a garden. Closing the gate, he led her down a slope, toward a back corner of the garden, under the shade of a lofty white pine tree, to where the coolness smelled of the pine needles, both the green ones above and the brown ones that formed a cushiony layer beneath her shoes.

  "What is this place?" she asked.

  "It's safe, for now," he said. His cheeks were flushed, and he took off his hat to wipe his brow. "The Quirks who own this place are old friends of the family. They spend most days in the Bastion, and shouldn't come home until late."

  She peered past a row of apple trees and up a grassy slope to

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  where a gracious, stone house was painted a clean, mellow cream. The white tile roof and arched windows created a welcoming picture, and though it was far from fancy, the simple elegance made her guess that this home and private garden were even more valuable than Tom and Dora's pristine white home. Purple and yellow flowers proliferated in abundance, proof that water was used here to assure decoration, and white boulders dotted the area in a harmonious, random pat' tern, providing natural places to sit.

  A high, stone wall protected the garden on three sides, and the fourth side was open to a cliff with a spectacular view of the unlake and the distant southern horizon.

  "Stay back," he said, when she would have walked nearer to the cliff. "We don 't want to be seen."

  She glanced down, then stepped back into the shade of the pine. She turned to Capt. Grey, and her amazement hit her again.

  "I cant believe you re Leon Quarry," she said.

  "I thought you knew."

  She shook her head. "How would I? You're completely different from the last time I saw you on the Tvaltar. What happened to you?"

  His neat fingers clenched the rim of his hat in his hands. "I joined the guard."

  There was so obviously more to the story that she almost laughed.

  "What does the Protectorat's son want with me?" she said.

  He peered at her. "It wasn't an accident that I saw you by the cafe. I've been waiting for you. I know you have some answers we need, and I think I can help you," he said.

  She lifted her eyebrows, doubtful.

  "Listen, Gaia. The Enclave is getting ready to interrogate you for the last time," he said. "It won't be me. They have an

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  expert. They want to know about the ribbon, and they want to know about the ink."

  "The ink!" she exclaimed.

  "There was no pen in your satchel, but they claim the ink bottle is evidence you wrote notes at a birth, information that was transferred to the permanent code on the ribbon later."

  "But I don't have any notes," she exclaimed. "I don't know anything about a code."

  "Gaia," he said, coming nearer. "They're deadly serious. If you know anything, anything at all, they'll get it out of you. It's far, far better to cooperate with them right from the start. They reward loyalty. They always have."

  She staggered back, bracing herself against the black trunk of the pine, feeling a bead of sap against her thumb.

  "I don't know anything," she insisted.

  His mouth was closed in a straight line. "Then you'll die."

  Gaia instinctively clutched a hand to her chest. He hardly seemed to care what he was saying, and yet he'd brought her here on purpose to warn her. It made no sense. She scrambled for a solution. She would have to leave the Enclave. Immediately. She would have to come back later for her mother since she wouldn't do her any good dead. She glanced to her left, toward the cliff. Would it be any worse to jump now, and take her chances running away from Capt. Grey? "Can't you let me go?" she asked. "Right now?"

  He shook his head. "Even if I did, orders are to shoot any unescorted prisoner on sight. You'd be dead in five minutes."

  She hesitated, indecisive. "If I tell them something," she said in a small voice. "I don't see how it could help, but if I tell them something, will they let me go?"

  Capt. Grey lowered his face into his hand, pressing his fingers with visible pressure against his forehead. His hat dropped softly to the ground. "This can't be," he said in a low voice.

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  His reaction only made her more afraid. "Wait, Captain. Please. There has to be a way out of the Enclave."

  He turned pained, angry eyes to her. "What do you know?" he said. He grabbed both her arms, pushing her backward until her foot hit against a root and she stumbled. Her hat knocked back and fell to the ground. He gripped her
harder. "For your own sake. Tell me!" he insisted.

  It was her parents' secret. She had promised never to tell. How could she know telling wouldn't make things worse?

  He shook her again. "Gaia, tell me!"

  "The freckles," she said.

  His arms loosened infinitesimally, but his expression remained urgent. "What do you mean? What freckles?"

  "We put a pattern of freckles on each baby," she said. "I don't know how it would help. It would only track some of the advanced babies back to me and my mother. I guess to Western Sector Three."

  His grip loosened further until he was just holding her. "What are you talking about?"

  She instinctively angled her foot outward. "It was in honor of my brothers. I didn't realise it could be important until recently," she said. "Whenever a baby was born, my mother would sit with the mother afterward for a bit, drinking tea. She would have me put pinpricks of ink in the baby's skin. It was part of my apprenticeship."

  "A tattoo? Did she write anything down? Did she have the ribbon with her?" Capt. Grey asked.

  She shook her head. He released her, but stayed near, his expression puzzled. She reached up to rub her tender shoulders where his strong grip had hurt her.

  "Can you show me?" he asked. "Do you have the marks yourself?"

  She stepped into the sunlight, and bracing her shoe against

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  a boulder, she smoothed her skirt up her shin to expose her left ankle. Pointing, she traced the area on the inside of her left ankle, where the smooth, tawny skin was marked by four seemingly natural freckles in a simple pattern.

  "Four dots," she said. "Three in an almost straight line, and one farther below. Like the three stars of Orion s belt and one for the point of the sword."

  "They're the same on every baby?" he asked.

  But before she could answer, Capt. Grey was moving.

  He pivoted before her to sit on the boulder and propped his left ankle on his right knee. With one rapid movement, he shucked off his left boot. A black sock followed, and then, al' most savagely, he pulled up the black leg of his pants to expose his ankle.

  There, faint but clearly visible, were three freckles arranged in a line, and a bit lower, to the left, was a fourth. Gaia stared, unbelieving.

  "Fm from outside the wall," Capt. Grey said, his voice barely more than a whisper.

  Her eyes shot to his and held. "My mother was there when you were born," she said. "She birthmarked you." Her mind

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  scrambled to put it all together. Her mother had advanced Leon into the Enclave. "What's your birth date?" she asked.

  He blinked slowly in her direction. "My birth date? It's April fourteenth, twenty three ninety," he said. "Why?"

  She was both disappointed and strangely relieved. "You re not my brother," she said, and warmth tinged her cheeks. "You re the same year as Odin, but a different day."

  He closed his eyes briefly. Gaia felt an overwhelming urge, a compulsion to trace her mothers mark, and she gently reached forward to touch his ankle. He winced back, looking up at her curiously.

  "I'm sorry," she said, withdrawing. Her finger tingled from the feel of his skin.

  "Do you realise what this means for me?" he asked.

  She shook her head.

  "Do you have any idea who my parents are? My biological parents, I should say."

  She shook her head again. "I'm sorry. No."

  "The information wouldn't be in that ribbon, would it?" he asked.

  "It could be," she said, hesitating. She locked pleading eyes to his. "I don't know the code," she said. "Why does it matter who your biological parents are? You were raised in here. You said yourself your father is the Protectorat. What could be better than that?"

  He was putting his sock and boot on again swiftly.

  "I'm sure you remember the Protectorat Family Special of How We Are Family," he said in a tight voice. "The Protectorat's first wife couldn't have children, so they adopted a son-- me." He stood to stomp the boot on. "Then my adoptive mother died, and my father married a second wife, Genevieve, a fertile woman who gave him three children of his own."

  Gaia was thinking quickly. "So those women you called

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  your mother and sister today. They're technically your step' mother and stepsister, through adoption. Right?" she said.

  "Technically. But wave your magic wand, little Gaia. We're family" he drew out the last word, as if it were written all in capital letters with music in the background.

  She drew back slightly, disturbed by his dark sarcasm. "I'm not sure you really know what a family is, Leon," she said quietly.

  He let out a laugh. "No kidding. Thank you. And it's 'Leon finally. There's a breakthrough."

  She drew her arms across her chest. "I don't understand you," she said.

  He ran a hand back through his dark hair and frowned at her. "It doesn't matter about me," he said. "What you need to understand is that the freckles will only make them more desperate to decode the ribbon. The freckles are like a brand."

  Gaia was shocked. "You're going to tell them?" she asked, incredulous.

  He turned to face her, his eyes piercing into hers. "No. You are," he said.

  She backed away from him. "I am not."

  "You are," he insisted. "You have to convince them you're cooperating. You have to try to unravel the code. Don't you see it's your only chance? If you resist, they'll kill you. But if you help them, they'll see how valuable you are. Think of Sephie."

  "What about Sephie?" she asked.

  He straightened, his expression surprised. "They released her," he said. "Persephone Frank is back home with her family. She's practicing medicine as if nothing ever happened. Didn't you know?"

  She let out a laugh of astonishment. "I don't believe you."

  "It's true. I could show you, but we don't have much time."

  But Gaia was stupefied.

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  "She told them to look for the tea and the motherwort," Leon continued. "She convinced them you have knowledge you re not consciously aware of yourself."

  "She betrayed me?" Gaia asked.

  Leon shook his head, trying to explain. "No," he said. "She cooperated. She cooperated, and they let her go."

  Gaia struggled to see it from his point of view. "But you said yourself it's like a brand. If I tell the Enclave about the freckles, they'll be able to identify all the babies advanced by my mother." Something puzzled her. "But don 't they know that already? Don 't they have their own records?"

  He shook his head. "They know which people are advanced, obviously. That's no secret. And they have their birth dates. But they don't know their birth parents, or what part of Wharfton those parents are from."

  "And the people with the freckles?" she asked doubtfully. "Would it help them?"

  He twisted a twig of pine from the tree above him, and fiddled with the needles. "I suppose they'd be even more careful not to fall in love with each other," he said.

  "What do you mean?" she asked, affronted.

  He shook his head, frustrated. "People here, inside, who were advanced from outside are discouraged from marrying each other. It's a kind of civic duty for an advanced person to marry someone who was born inside the Enclave, and in a similar way, advanced people have become desirable as spouses to the people born inside. Are you with me?"

  "It sounds like you think people can control who they fall in love with," she said.

  "It's not really like that. It's possible for two advanced people who fall in love with each other to marry, as long as the genetic screening shows they're not related, but it's considered a waste of their genetic diversity." He closed his eyes, shaking

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  his head. "Our genetic diversity," he clarified. "I'm one of them. One of the advanced."

  It sounded to her like he was still grappling with the basics of his identity.

  "Didn't you realise you were from outside the wall?" she asked. "You knew
you were adopted." She watched a faint ruddiness rise in his cheeks.

  "Until five minutes ago, I thought I was my fathers bastard," he said. He twisted the pine needles into a tangle and let them fall.

  "And was that worse?" she asked softly. "To be a bastard from inside the wall?"

  He'd been looking away, but now she saw him refocus on her, and his lips curled in a kind of self mockery. "You don 't miss much, do you? It was worse. I'd by far rather be a legitimate nobody from the outside than be the Protecorat's bastard."

  "And that's saying something," she said.

  He let out a brief laugh, and looked at her, his eyes warming with wary gratitude.

  "You could still be the Protectorates bastard, but from out' side the wall," she reminded him.

  "Not if you know him. He would never touch a woman from outside the wall."

  A breeze moved through the pine needles with a soft, rushing noise, and Gaia heard a bird make a clicking noise in the garden.

  "Fm sorry," he said quietly. "That's how he thinks. Not how I do."

  "It's all right."

  She looked down at her hands, -wondering why she understood him, why it was becoming easier to talk to him, even about things that were intensely personal. He wasn't who she'd thought he was, not underneath.

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  "Why Orion?" he asked. "Why not some other constellation?"

  She braced her foot against the boulder again and looked at the little marks on her own ankle. "Orion's my mother 's maiden name." She spoke slowly, pondering the design. "You could see the Orion tattoo there your whole life and never guess it means anything."

  "Until you know," he said. "And then it means everything."

  She nodded.

  When she lowered her foot to the ground, she felt a strange tingling in her ankle, as if the freckles on her skin there were somehow aware of the matching freckles concealed again now on his ankle. Does he feel it too? She wondered.

 
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