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Birthmarked, p.15
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       Birthmarked, p.15

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  "We need to go," he said. He lifted both hats from the ground and brushed the pine needles off before he offered hers to her.

  "Thank you," she said.

  He gave her a long, unsmiling look and spoke gently. "My pleasure."

  An unfamiliar awkwardness gripped her, coupled with a tight tug in her lungs, and she reached instinctively for her missing locket watch. She found only the buttons of her dress and touched them self consciously.

  "That reminds me," he said. He pulled her locket watch out of his pocket and held it toward her. "We're finished with this."

  She frowned at the familiar object in his hand, hesitating. "You keep it."

  "Why?" he asked. "It's yours. It still works. I kept it wound for you."

  She shook her head. "It belongs to a free person. I have no use for it now. Besides-- " She couldn't say it, but the object was defiled for her, ruined by the unknown eyes that had examined and prodded it.

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  Leon slowly closed his fingers over the watch and slid it back into his pocket.

  "Gaia," he began. "You told me once to be good, if I knew how. I wish-- "

  She waited, unwilling to meet his eyes, hoping he would go on. When he didn't, the silence stretched between them like invisible cobwebs. In the dimmest part of her, she realized she might have wishes, too, elusive wishes that belonged more to a girl in a garden than they did to a captive.

  Leon cleared his throat. "That baby," he said finally. "The one, you know, from the executed convict. I thought you d want to know. It turns out that baby made its way to the black market."

  Gaia's eyes widened. Could he have arranged it? The significance of his news was not lost on her. If he had saved that baby, he had done so because of Gaia. For her. And it couldn't have been easy. "Thank you," she said.

  He turned his hat once more in his hand, then dipped his head to put it on and started through the garden.

  Gaia followed him out and waited as he carefully closed the gate, causing a light click. It meant a lot to her that he'd given the doomed baby a chance. And the orange. He had done what he could for her, just as he'd said he would, and even though he remained a guard and part of a corrupt system, she was grateful.

  They were nearing the center of town when she stopped a moment to catch her breath. She glanced up to find him studying her, but with a new easiness. Gaia smelled freshly baking bread and instinctively turned to the alluring scent. She looked up a small lane, and there, hanging from an iron bar, was a wooden sign with a carved sheaf of wheat.

  "Buy me some bread," she said quietly.

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  He slid his hands in his pockets and leaned back in a friendly way for a moment. "That, Masister Stone, is impossible."

  Pleasure shot through her, and she saw he was almost smiling. She stepped closer to him, until the buttons of her dress nearly touched his chest, and when she tilted her face to look up into his, their hat brims all but met. She felt unbelievably bold, and she liked it. She heard him breathe inward. His pupils dilated, and he seemed to freeze for a moment, but he didn't draw back.

  "Leon," she said softly. "I may go into that prison and never come out again. I want some bread."

  His keen blue eyes narrowed slightly, and then she saw him lick his lower lip. She had trouble breathing. It struck her how handsome he would be if he ever allowed himself to smile, and then, naturally, she felt her own lips begin to curve, encouraging him.

  Leon backed up a half step, closed his eyes, and nodded.

  A flash of embarrassment hit her. Her cheeks burned with a rush of color. She had actually believed, for an instant, that she was attractive to him. And he had kindly pretended to forget, for an instant, that she had a half hideous face. She grew dizzy with mortification.

  "Forget it," she muttered.

  "No," he said, and though he didn't meet her eyes, he grasped her wrist tightly and drew her up the lane, into the bakery. The warm, yeast laden air carried a rich, healing scent that permeated her face and filled her lungs as she entered, easing some of the shame she felt.

  "A loaf of black bread, Mabrother," Leon said, releasing Gaia.

  The baker s eyes flashed from him to Gaia in her gray prison uniform, and then back, revealing nothing. Rubbing her wrist, Gaia looked over the tall counter and saw what she was looking for: a vast brick oven, black as night. As the baker wrapped

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  the small crusty loaf in a sheet of brown paper, she studied his face, memorising his sharp nose and bushy white brows. His arms were muscled, his white apron dirty with dried bits of dough. When he took Leon s coin, he gave a brief nod and dropped it with a clink into a box behind the counter.

  "Will there be anything else, then, Mabrother?" the baker said. His voice was rich and round.

  "No. Thank you," Leon said.

  "I serve the Enclave," the baker said.

  "And I," Leon said.

  "And I," Gaia whispered.

  The baker gave her another sharp look with his small black eyes. Then he took a step back and gently placed his hand on the brickwork of the oven. Nothing more. It was a small, natural gesture, but seeing it, Gaia felt her heart slide against her ribs. It was a message, a sign, and when she met the bakers eyes again, he nodded infinitesimally. She looked hurriedly away, stepping out of the shop before Leon would notice.

  She didn't dare to look back into the bakery, but she knew the baker would be watching her still. He was Derek's friend. She'd forgotten his name, but she knew he was to be trusted. She could barely hide her thrill.

  Leon passed her the small loaf of bread. "Do you have a pocket?" he asked. "It will hardly do to march in with every one seeing I've bought you a gift."

  She took a gulping bite of the loaf, nearly moaning with the tasty goodness of the clean, warm bread and her new speck of hope. On instinct, she offered it back to him. His eyebrows lifted with surprise. He took a quick glance down the narrow lane, but they were alone. He broke off a piece and bit into it with white teeth.

  Gaia tucked the remaining piece into the sleeve of her dress. Wouldn't the others be amazed when she came into Q cell

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  with real, fresh bread to share? There would be a small bite for each.

  Leon swallowed and his expression sobered. "Please remember," he said. "Cooperate with them."

  "How soon should I expect this interrogation?"

  "Soon. Tomorrow or the next day."

  She licked her tongue over her teeth for the last taste of bread. It wouldn't do her any good to know a baker if she was lost in an interrogation deep in the prison. She needed to get to him soon. As they returned to the main road, Leon adopted a purposeful pace, and Gaia hurried beside him.

  "There's something I don't understand," she said. "Why are you in the guard? If your father's the Protectorat, why are you serving the Enclave like any uneducated man from outside the wall?"

  "You forget. I am from outside the wall," he said dryly.

  "That isn't what I mean," she said.

  They had reached the square now, and Gaia slowed at the sight of the arch leading to the prison. A heavy, late afternoon shadow slanted across half of the square, though light was still bright on the yellow stonework of the Bastion itself. The building had different significance to her now that she knew Leon had grown up inside it, part of the Protectorat's family.

  "My father disowned me," Leon said abruptly. "It's no secret. I'm in disgrace, and yet they feel compelled to keep an eye on me. What better place than the guard?"

  They were nearly at the prison entrance now, and Gaia was afraid he wouldn't have time to tell her before they were surrounded by other guards. Even now, people in the square were watching, curious to see a guard talking tête-à-tête with a prisoner.

  "What did you do?" she asked.

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  She saw his profile turn toward the Bastion, as if he could see through its walls to the people within, and then he turned his ironic gaze upon her.

 
; "A crime against the state," he said, his voice cool.

  The change in him was startling. Gaia didn't understand what he was telling her, or even if he was speaking the truth. She did know that only something that hurt deeply could make a person so bitter.

  "I'm sorry," she murmured.

  His eyebrows lifted in mild surprise and a hint of disdain. "Don 't be," he said. "I got just what I deserved."

  They passed beneath the stone arch, and he signaled to the two guards who stood before the wooden doors.

  "Take her to Q cell," he commanded. "She's clear."

  "Yes, Captain," the guard said.

  Gaia slowly took off her hat and felt the chill of the stone walls settle around her as the door closed, leaving the sunlight and Leon outdoors.

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  Chapter 14 A Crime Against the State

  THAT NIGHT, as Gaia shared her fresh black bread in Q cell, the other women were openly astonished that Leon had bought it for her. She was tempted to tell them about the freckles and her fear that she would be interrogated again soon, but she had a new fear now. What if one of them passed on any' thing she said to the guards? She had trusted Sephie, and even though Leon had argued that Sephie had not betrayed Gaia, it felt like betrayal to her. The women were even more astounded to hear Sephie was free and back to her old life.

  "So then, there's hope," Cotty said. "Any of us could be set free."

  There was a buzz, among the women, and Gaia saw the light in their eyes. Hope was intoxicating. One of the women giggled. Only Myrna, sitting apart and reading a frayed book by tilting it toward the light from the window, continued to look unimpressed. When she glanced up from under her black eyebrows, Gaia knew Myrna guessed there was more to her story.

  "Watch out for him," Myrna said.

  Gaia looked away in confusion, beginning to blush, and

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  that seemed to confirm something for Myrna. She nodded, setting a finger in her book as she closed the pages.

  "Don't underestimate the Enclave," Myrna said. "They're using him, just like they're using all of us."

  "Even you?" Gaia said.

  Myrna gave a short laugh, as if Gaia amused her. "I'd say so. They've taken everything from me, and I still work for them."

  The other women's voices quieted.

  "Pay no attention to her," Cotty said.

  "No," Gaia said. "Why, Myrna? Why do you do it? Why don't you give up, or walk away and get shot? What keeps you going?"

  "Good gracious," Cotty said.

  Myrna stretched her jaw and looked coldly at Gaia. "Truth' fully? I can't stand to think of being outlived by the idiots."

  Cotty and the others began to laugh, and Gaia thought she understood what Myrna meant.

  "I want to hear about Captain Grey. What's he like?" Cotty asked. Her open, curious expression made her seem younger, despite the lines in her dark face. "I mean, I used to see him with the Protectorat. Everyone did. But I've never talked to him like you have. He's an awfully handsome young man."

  "Does everybody know he's the Protectorat's son?" Gaia asked.

  Cotty and the others exchanged glances. "I'd say so," Cotty said.

  Gaia felt like a moron.

  "You didn't know!" Cotty said, laughing. "I tell you, these people outside the wall. It's like you're from another world."

  Gaia crossed her arms defensively. "It's not like I'd never heard of him," she explained. "I just didn't realise that's who he was."

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  "Oh, this is great," Cotty said. "I want to hear all about it."

  Gaia wasn't sure how to answer, but she could see the others, all except Myrna, were watching her curiously. They welcomed any topic that distracted them from their own bleak prospects, and she was learning what power existed in the smallest news from outside the prison walls, but she wasn't certain what she could say about him. Besides, she still felt like she ought to have known who he was somehow. As if it made a difference. Gaia picked at a last crumb of bread on the gray fabric that covered her lap. "I don't know," she hedged.

  Gotty laughed. "You like him!"

  "No," Gaia protested.

  But the other women were smiling now, too, and Gaia could feel her cheeks getting warm.

  "That's ridiculous," Gaia said. "I hardly know him. Besides, I know how hideous I am."

  Cotty leaned her head back against the wall, and her shoulders looked relaxed and comfortable for once. "You know, I thought so at first," Cotty said. "But you get used to your face. I always watch the pretty side of you now, and the other side sort of vanishes into a blind spot."

  The others murmured. Gaia was frankly disbelieving. She'd lived with her own ugliness for so long, hiding it behind the curtain of her hair whenever possible, that there was no way she'd believe anyone else could find her pretty. Unbidden, she pictured Leon walking beside her, and realized he'd positioned himself on her unscarred side. It was natural to avoid her disfigurement; it didn't mean he could find her pretty.

  Even if he did almost kiss her.

  She closed her eyes and repressed a groan.

  "What's he like?" said Brooke, another one of the prisoners. Brooke was a tall, gangly woman with deep circles under her

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  eyes and a long, narrow nose. She set aside the anatomy chart and smiled encouragingly

  Gaia looked down at her own hands. What does it matter if I indulge them? she thought. "It's hard to say. When I first met him, he had just arrested my parents, and I was afraid of him. He seemed serious and cold to me then. Really cold, actually. Now I think it's more that he's reserved," she said. She frowned. "He's quite courteous and well spoken, which makes sense now, I suppose." She remembered the baby she'd de' livered from the hanged mother and how he'd saved it. She couldn't tell them about that, either. "I used to think he could be cruel," she added quietly, "but now I'm not so sure." He could be manipulative, she thought, glancing briefly at Myrna. The discovery that he was from outside the wall was too personal, too confidential to tell them, and for some reason she didn't want to tell them that the orange was from him, either. "It's hard to reconcile his gentle manners with him being in the guard. It's like he doesn't fit anywhere."

  The women nodded. "Well, and the bread was certainly a surprise. He must have a generous streak in him somewhere. He was raised in the Bastion, you know," Brooke said.

  "Until they kicked him out," Gotty added. "When was that? Two ... no, three years ago."

  Gaia glanced at the other women to see this was common knowledge among them. "He hasn't been on the Tvaltar for longer than that. Do you know why?" Gaia asked.

  Cotty passed Gaia a skein of blue wool. "Roll that for me, would you?" she said. "He was on pretty regularly until he was ten or so. Then he faded out. They started doing more individual profiles of the younger kids. I don't know. I was kind of curious about Leon."

  Brooke nodded. "Me, too. But then it became a respect-our-privacy thing as the kids got older."

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  Gaia found the end of the yarn and absently passed the first few loops of it around three of her fingers. "Why did they disown him?" she asked.

  Cotty made a clucking noise. "It was all very hush-hush. He must have been, what, around sixteen then? It was about the time of that unfortunate accident with his sister, too. Fiona. A tragedy, that."

  Gaia looked around expectantly, hoping one of the other women would elaborate. Cotty s knitting needles made a steady clicking. Myrna was sitting with her book open again, conspicuously refraining from joining the gossip.

  "What happened to her?" Gaia asked. "I mean, I remember she died in an accident, but how?"

  "Fiona fell," Brooke said. "From her bedroom window one night. Broke her neck."

  Gaia felt an eerie tingle of alarm, remembering the way Leon had warned her away from the cliff in the garden. She wondered if he had been thinking then of his stepsister. "After Fiona's death, there was hardly ever anything about the Protectorate family on the Tvaltar," G
aia said, remembering more now. "Genevieve. I remember a photo of her crying at the funeral."

  Brooke nodded, and Cotty made a sympathetic humming noise. "Very unfortunate," Cotty repeated. "The whole business. Best not to talk about it."

  "But what did Leon do to get disowned?" Gaia pressed. "What's a crime against the state?"

  The women looked nervously at each other, but no one spoke until Myrna turned her flat black eyes on Gaia. "It's a genetic crime," she said.

  "Like what?"

  She looked at Cotty and Brooke.

  "Like what we're accused of," Cotty said.

  Gaia remembered what the doctors had first told her, but

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  she was confused. "How could Leon have falsified genetic tests or helped with an abortion?"

  Cotty and Brooke said nothing. Gaia looked around the circle of women, and then finally to Myrna.

  "He slept with his aunt," Myrna said.

  "No," Gaia said, aghast.

  Myrna shrugged, looking at her book again. "It's what I heard."

  Gaia turned beseechingly to Cotty. "Is it true?" she whispered.

  "No," Cotty said, scowling at Myrna. "That was just a rumor. There were all kinds of crazy rumors, not half of them true, I'm sure. His Aunt Maura is ten years older than him and a very genteel, married woman. I'm sure she'd never do such a thing. Myrna, you should know better than to torment the girl."

  Myrna merely rolled her eyes as if she found them both incredibly boring.

  "But then, what did happen?" Gaia asked Cotty.

  "Well, I don't know exactly. Nobody knows," Cotty said. "We could gossip until we're blue in the face, but nobody has any facts. Frankly, I thought it was pretty disgusting, all the speculation there was. For a while there, it sounded like he'd slept with every girl in the Bastion, which was obviously not true. Any way, he took his mother's maiden name, Grey, for his last name and joined the guard, and we didn't hear much more about him."

 
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