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Birthmarked, p.16
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       Birthmarked, p.16

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Gaia slowly rolled more blue yarn around her fingers. "Why didn't this gossip make it outside the wall?" she asked.

  "I'm sure it did," Cotty said. "It must have. Maybe you just weren't listening."

  Gaia must have been twelve or thirteen at the time, she reasoned. Her parents, never much for gossip, might have talked about it a little, and Old Meg certainly would have talked about it, but it hadn't made an impact on Gaia. She had known that

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  Fiona had died, but she certainly hadn't registered Leon's new last name. Perhaps his scandal had been overshadowed by the mourning.

  Now she pondered the little bit she knew, troubled by the sordid possibilities. She couldn't believe Leon had slept with his aunt. The idea was sick. It would violate everything decent she knew about him. She could not believe it, but certainly something had happened to cause his disgrace. He felt he de' served it.

  That was the key. Her hands stilled on the ball of yarn, and she let her gaze drift up to the windows. No matter what the rumors were, Leon believed he'd done something wrong, some evil that warranted exclusion from his family and a life in the guard. That existence, carrying out the Enclave's laws without question, had stymied everything else in his nature, and in essence, he'd chosen that. He'd chosen to surrender his own ethics. He'd chosen to become callous.

  She glanced up at Myrna to find the older woman looking at her through tired eyes. She felt a chill around her heart, remembering Myrna's warning: they'll use you. And him.

  "Give it enough time, and this place will destroy even you," Myrna said softly.

  Gaia stood, handed the ball of yarn back to Cotty, and walked into her bedroom cell.

  After dinner, while the others were walking in the court' yard, Cotty sewed a pocket inside the waistband of Gaia's dress for her. "In case you get more bread," Cotty said, patting the fabric smooth before she gave back the dress. "Or anything else. You can smuggle in treats for us."

  Gaia smiled, thanking her, but she doubted she 'would have more opportunities to walk with Leon as Cotty was obviously implying. Gaia pulled the dress over her head.

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  "Can I ask you something?" Gaia asked softly, working the buttons. "Have you known Myrna long?"

  Cotty gave a brief laugh and poked her needle into a spool of gray thread. "You want to know why she's so mean, don't you?" Cotty said.

  Gaia wouldn't have put it that bluntly, but now she nodded.

  "She has a heart, I know that," Cotty said slowly. "But I think she pushes people away before they can disappoint her. I heard she was married briefly, long ago, and it ended badly. I know for certain she's been thwarted about wanting to start a clinic. She argued that we need a blood bank for the hemophiliacs and a teaching clinic for doctors, but the Protectorat flatly refuses."

  "Why?" Gaia asked.

  Cotty shook her head, putting her spools and scissors in a little box. "It was one of the founding principles: no hospitals, no extreme medicine. Just antibiotics and morphine. They thought anything more just catered to the weak. It was a choice about resources, brutal but necessary. Now Myrna thinks things have changed."

  Gaia gazed up at the three windows, puzzling over the possibilities. "She's a good doctor. If she were in charge, more people might live longer."

  "I agree. But the Protectorat has his point, too. There's no shame in dying. His focus is on the whole population, what's best for everyone, not what's best for an individual. He and Myrna just come from different perspectives."

  "And he's in charge," Gaia said dryly.

  Cotty made a soft clucking noise, and Gaia glanced over to see her warm, crooked smile. "Don't you worry about Myrna," Cotty said kindly. "She's mean, but she's smart. And she's not like Sephie."

  "How do you mean?" Gaia asked, puzzled.

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  Cotty gave a sideways, apologetic glance. "I don 't like to speak ill of someone who's not here. Let me just say, it's easy to like Sephie because she's so warm and friendly. But when she has to, she'll always choose the easiest route."

  Gaia grew uncomfortable, not certain -what to say.

  "I'm sorry," Cotty continued. "I was only trying to say, you can count on Myrna." She rubbed the bridge of her nose thoughtfully. "Maybe that's why she's here."

  That night, when the others were asleep, Gaia took out her little mirror and tried to see her face in the darkness. It was pointless, of course. The little oval mocked her by reflecting only the near-black of the night shadows, as if she herself were invisible. She ran her thumb slowly over the smooth surface of the glass, and then slid the mirror into her new pocket. At night, with nothing to distract her, she missed her mother and father so intensely, the loneliness invaded her heart like a cold, soundless mist. Myrna, Leon, and even Cotty-- these new people in her life didn't know her. They didn't know who she really was inside, or the intricate workings of her heart. There was nobody now who really loved her, she realized.

  Nobody but her mother, wherever she was. Gaia had a flashing memory of her mother standing at the edge of the back porch, her face turned up toward the sunlight, squinting and half smiling as she reached up to untangle the strands of the wind chime.

  You really should brush your hair back, Gaia. Let me braid it for you.

  Unbidden tears crowded against Gaia's eyelids. Her hair was short now. Her mother was gone. She turned her head against her flat mattress, automatically keeping the tender skin of her scar upward, and told herself she would not cry.

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  Chapter 15 The Yellow Pincushion

  It WAS BARELY LIGHT when the guards came.

  "Gaia Stone!" a man 's voice yelled.

  She rolled out of bed, her bare feet hitting the cold floor.

  Myrna ran in and gripped her arms tightly, pulling her near in a sudden, fierce hug. "They're here for you," she whispered tersely. "Stay strong. Remember, whatever you do, whatever you say, your first job is to survive."

  Gaia clutched at her, terrified, as the guard entered the bed' room and jerked Gaia away.

  "Shoes!" he yelled. "Where are your shoes?"

  Gaia looked to the floor, where the shoes lay, and Myrna picked them up and thrust them to Gaia.

  "Quickly!" the guard yelled again, and the instant her shoes were on, he grabbed her again and roughly tied her hands behind her back.

  "Where are you taking her?" Cotty asked.

  The other women came from their rooms, too, and watched in horror as the guards hurried Gaia toward the door. As one of them began to cry, Gaia was reminded of the day they took Sephie away. She had one last look over her shoulder at Myrna,

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  who was standing alone under the windows while the other women grouped together in a terrified hug. Myrna's stony face was harsh with bitterness, and her fists were clenched rigidly at her sides.

  "You hear me? Your first job is to survived Myrna repeated.

  The door banged shut behind her. If Gaia had ever believed the older doctor was indifferent to her, she knew now she was wrong. What Gotty had said was true. The sharp commands, the sarcasm: these were Myrna s version of affection, and now Gaia clung to Myrna's last words of advice.

  The next moment, Gaia was being hauled up the stairs and along another hallway. She was barely able to keep on her feet, and she was prevented from falling only by the rough grasp of the guards who held her arms, one on each side. When they reached the main entrance, she looked around desperately, hoping to see Leon, but there were only more unfamiliar guards dressed in black. Half a dozen of them fell into step around her as they left the prison, passing under the stone arch into the cool, dim air of the deserted square. A swirl of fog enshrouded the obelisk in the middle of the square.

  With a jolt, she remember the first day she was there, when a man was dragged to the Bastion at dawn, just as she was being dragged. Later the pregnant woman and her husband had been hanged. Terror coursed through her, and her feet refused to propel her forward.

  "Come now,"
the guard on her left said roughly, jerking her so that she half fell out of her loose loafers.

  Gaia gasped in pain as her tied hands twisted in the tight rope, and then she lunged forward between the guards. When they led her straight toward the Bastion, Gaia's alarm mush' roomed with the cold air in her lungs.

  "No," she whispered.

  "You'll come, and no more fuss," the guard said in her ear.

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  Gaia recoiled, but the two guards lifted her by her arms up the stairs, and plopped her back on her feet when they arrived at the door. As they waited for the door to be opened, Gaia had her first chance to catch her breath. One of the guards leaned nearer, and lightly lifted the bangs that had fallen fop ward over her eyes.

  Gaia jerked her head back, glaring at him.

  "Ha," the man said, his breath sour in her face. "I thought we had a pretty one here, but she's right disgusting."

  The guard in the front turned slightly. "That's how we know we've got the right one," he said briefly. "Her scar."

  Gaia burned with resentment, but anything was better than the unthinking panic she'd felt before. She stood straighter now, eyeing the first guard coldly. His eyes protruded and a mottled, bulbous nose overhung his lips as he leered at her. Pride took hold and saved her from reacting to him. She turned her gaze forward, toward the door.

  The guard gave her arm a sharp pinch, and she gasped.

  "Think you're better than me?" he whispered.

  She clenched her teeth, hoping desperately that this man would not be in charge of her for long.

  "You're nothing but a cheap slut from outside the wall," he hissed.

  Then the door opened, and she was ushered into a lighted hallway that smelled unexpectedly of some faint perfume. The guards fell silent and after a last shove, they allowed her a little distance.

  She was standing in a vast, open space that was completely antithetical to the plain, practical facade of the building. Nothing she had ever seen on the Tvaltar had prepared her for this sight. A pair of potted gardenia bushes, responsible for the pure fragrance, stood at the bottom of a grand, white staircase that ascended in a double curve upward, out of sight. White tiles,

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  with smaller inlays of black tile in a whimsical, geometric pat-tern, graced the floor. Beyond the staircase, the walls seemed to be made entirely of French doors and she saw the green light of a solarium behind the panes. To Gaia's immediate left and right were enormous matching wooden doors, both sets carved with figures and trees.

  Gaia stood waiting among her guards, grateful for their silence, and then, unexpectedly, she heard a snatch of childish laughter come from somewhere in the back of the house. A small boy of two or three years came running around the corner in a bright blue nightshirt and a pair of fluffy pink slippers that were clearly too big for him. He carried a small yellow ball. His laughter was a bright, joyful noise, completely in' congruous with the desperate situation she found herself in, and she stood still, caught in anticipation, knowing that any moment he would see her and the guards.

  He was moving so fast that he'd gotten partly past their group before he saw them, and then he skidded in his slippers, his laughter abruptly gone. She watched his foot catch against his own ankle, and then he was down, sprawled in a blue heap on the white tile, and his ball was jarred loose from his hand. Instinctively, she took a half step toward him, but strong hands held her back.

  The small yellow ball skidded forward across the white and black tiles, landed before her, and proved to be her father's lemon-shaped pincushion. Gaia was astounded. By what circuitous route could the pincushion have traveled from Leon's pocket to become this child's plaything?

  The next moment, an older girl of nine or ten came running around in the path of the boy. Her blond, wavy hair stood out around her pink-cheeked face in a glorious haze.

  "Michael!" she called, her voice breathless with mirth. "If you don't give me back my slippers-- " Her voice broke off as

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  she saw them, and she stumbled to a stop. The boy scrambled forward to grab the pincushion just as she ran to him, crouching to scoop him up into his arms.

  "Aunt Genevieve!" she screamed. She was backing up the way she'd come, carrying the heavy child.

  A third person now came wrathfully around the corner. "What on earth?" she demanded.

  Gaia stared. This was the woman she'd seen only the day before, when she was walking with Leon: Genevieve Quarry, the Protectorate wife. And she looked furious.

  "Britta. Take him back to the kitchen. Immediately," Genevieve said to the girl.

  As the children backed away another step, and then hurried away, Genevieve stormed forward.

  "How dare you," she demanded, her cultured voice scathing even at a hush.

  "Excuse me, Masister Quarry," the guard said. "I was told to bring her to Mabrother Iris first thing."

  Gaia felt Genevieve's piercing gaze turn to her, and she instinctively backed up.

  "Then do your job," Genevieve said contemptuously to the guard. She rapped on the door to Gaia's left, and instantly it was opened from within.

  "Get this rabble out of my foyer, Winston," Genevieve said.

  "I beg your pardon," Winston said smoothly, stepping aside and gesturing Gaia's group inside. "An oversight that will not be repeated."

  Genevieve was already disappearing toward the depths of the house. "Miles will hear of this," she said over her shoulder, and her quiet voice carried clearly.

  Winston was a stocky, middle-aged doorkeeper with a small mouth and little expression, even when he was being scolded. He merely nodded again, hurried them inside, and closed the door.

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  Gaia expected Winston to chastise the other guards, but he said nothing, leading them down a hallway. "Watch the step there," he said courteously, pointing, as he preceded them down two stairs, and then guided them down several passages. Gaia passed a row of tall windows, each offering a glimpse of the fog and the denser silhouette of the monument.

  When Winston led them next up a staircase, a practical, boxy one with narrow treads, Gaia had the impression the Bastion had two distinct functions: the beautiful, gracious home that Genevieve and the children inhabited, and the no' nonsense part that she was entering as a bound prisoner. In a way, it's only a more extreme version of the society I already live in, Gaia thought, another division, like the one that separates those who live inside and outside the wall. She had just seen where the worlds collided.

  "Here, one moment," Winston said finally, pausing before a tall, wooden door. Other similar doors lined the hallway. There was a carpet runner down the center of the hall and 'windows at both ends.

  Winston knocked, and a voice invited them in. Gaia stepped into a large, airy room, lined with books and carpeted with a sumptuous rug that muffled her footsteps. A yellow canary made a skittering noise in a cage by one of the windows.

  "What's this?" An annoyed voice spoke, and Gaia saw a small, gray haired man with glasses and slumped shoulders peer at them from over a desk. His white clothing had trim, tailored lines without appearing to be strictly a uniform. It was a peculiar desk, with a glass top and a light shining through it from below, so that the man s face was lit under his chin and nose and eyebrows, giving him an unearthly appearance.

  "It's the scarred girl from outside," the guard said. "Gaia Stone."

  "I can see that," the man said irritably. "What's with the rest of you?"

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  The guards stood stupidly for a moment.

  Winston cleared his throat. "Thank you," he said to the head guard. "We can take it from here."

  The guard set his jaw stubbornly. "She's dangerous. I'm supposed to take every precaution."

  "Indeed," Winston said. "And you have done so. Let me show you out."

  Gaia was left standing beside the door as it closed gently, and the last noise of the guards and Winston could be heard receding down the hallway. Her hands were still tied behin
d her and her gray dress was rumpled from all the jerking she'd been subjected to, but she took a deep breath and told herself to remain calm. She stood quietly, waiting. Based on what the guard had told the Protectorat's wife, she realized the old man must be Mabrother Iris. He doesn't look lie a torturer, she thought cautiously, and this seems more like a library than a prison cell. But still. She wondered briefly what would have happened if, weeks ago, she had reported to the south gate with her ribbon and asked to see Mabrother Iris, as Leon had advised her to do.

  He adjusted his glasses, his attention still on his desk. Gaia took a slight step forward and noticed that the top of the desk was like an enormous television set, but with a dozen screens overlapping at once.

  "Come," he said impatiently.

  As Gaia stepped silently across the thick carpet, he touched the top of the desk with his fingertip, and a scene appeared: a father beside the unlake, and a red haired woman dandling a baby before her. The sun was just coming up, and both parents were dressed in simple work clothes. The woman let her hat fall back and hang from the strings around her neck. They were smiling and their mouths moved, but Gaia couldn't hear their voices.

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  "Yes, come here," the man said, beckoning her to come stand beside him. "Precisely here. Not too close," he said, wrinkling his nose as if she smelled.

  "Are you Mabrother Iris?" she asked.

  "Watch," he commanded, pointing to the screen.

  Gaia looked more carefully, and when she realized the woman in the screen was Emily, she impulsively smiled. "Oh!" she said. "I know them! Emily's had her baby, then. Is it a boy?"

  "Yes," the man said.

  She was puzzled. "When was she in a movie?" she asked.

 
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