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Birthmarked, p.17
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       Birthmarked, p.17

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  "Unbelievable," the man muttered to himself. "It's now, girl," he said. "There's a camera focused on them now. They're taking a morning walk before they go to work."

  As Gaia grasped what he was saying, she realized there must be cameras aimed strategically around Wharfton. She'd always supposed there were a few informants in Wharfton who relayed information to the Enclave, but she hadn't guessed there were actually cameras spying on them in real time. That's how the Enclave seemed to know everything as soon as it happened.

  "Do you have cameras everywhere?" she asked.

  "Watch now," the man said. "This is a lesson for you."

  "If you're Mabrother Iris," she said nervously. "Do you know where my mother is?"

  The man gripped Gaia's arm with unexpected strength and pushed his face near to her own. "Of course I know where your mother is. But now, you need to watch this."

  He slapped his hand down upon the desk so hard the images vibrated for a moment. Gaia was stunned that he spoke of her mother in the present tense; that he knew where she was.

  With a surge of hope, she obediently turned her gaze to the screen on his desk and saw a raven, huge and black, settle on the stones by Emily's feet. Kyle pointed it out with big, goofy

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  gestures, but the baby was far too young to appreciate a bird, and instead continued to gurgle at his mom. Gaia could see Emily say something, laughing.

  Mabrother Iris pushed a little button on the edge of the desk. "Take out the bird," he said.

  At first nothing changed, except that Emily passed the baby to his dad. Then there was a blur of black at the edge of the screen and the parents simultaneously jumped in alarm. At their feet, the bird was reduced to a motionless mass of feathers with one crooked foot pleading upward. The camera view zoomed out, shrinking the image of the parents, who were running with their baby as fast as possible back toward the houses of Wharfton. Emily's auburn hair flew wildly behind her, and though there was no sound, Gaia saw that she was crying out in panic and fear.

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  Chapter 16 Cooperation

  WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?" she asked, uncomprehending. She had known the Enclave could be systematically cruel, as when they executed prisoners in the Square of the Bastion, but the bird had been harmless. The cruelty was so pointless. The horror of it, the scope of his power, made her cold. As Mabrother Iris turned deliberately, watching Gaia intently, she backed away.

  "You commanded a soldier on the wall to shoot the bird," she said. "What if his aim had been poor?"

  Mabrother Iris lifted his tinted glasses and propped them in the gray hair on top of his head. The pupils of his eyes were preternaturally dilated, reducing his irises to the narrowest rings of pale blue. "I need to be certain I have your entire CO' operation," he said.

  "Or what?" she asked, breathless. "You'll kill me?"

  He tilted his face slightly, contemplating her with fathom' less eyes. "No. Emily's baby, maybe. Or Sephie Frank. You liked her, didn't you? Or how about Leon?" His voice was deceptively casual.

  "You wouldn't."

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  "How about your mother?" he added.

  She shook her head stiffly, her mind scrambling to keep up with each evermore painful threat. "I don 't even believe she's still alive." The hard truth hit her again. "You lied to give your' self more leverage."

  The man stepped nearer the desk again. "Maybe not so stupid after all," he muttered, and touched the desk with his fingertip.

  A new screen popped up, and in spite of herself, Gaia stepped near again to see better. It was a view of three women sleeping in a semicircular space enclosed by stone walls. Gaia could see they were on cots, with gray blankets. It might have been a black-and-white photo, it was so devoid of color and motion, except that once a curtain swelled in a silent wind. Gaia tried to make out their faces, to glean any clue from the scene that would show her where they were. She saw a black chain leading to one of the beds. Gould the women be shackled?

  "You cant tell now," he said. "But the middle one's your mother."

  "Where are they?" Gaia asked, peering closely, willing the woman to roll over so she could see her face and be certain.

  The man touched the desktop, and it went dark. Gaia blinked and stepped back several paces until her legs hit against a chair.

  "Perhaps," he said slowly, lowering his glasses over his eyes again, "if you cooperate, I could arrange for you to see her."

  "Gould you really?"

  "Indeed I could."

  Torn, Gaia twisted her fingers into fists behind her back, instinctively straining against the ropes. Mild as he looked, she understood that he had the power of life and death over all the people he could see in his screen desk. Conversely, Leon had told her the Enclave rewarded loyalty. The choices were clear:

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  cooperate and see your mother. Resist, and shell be killed. Gaia felt sick to her stomach.

  "Sit, please," Mabrother Iris said.

  She sat gingerly on the edge of the upholstered chair behind her, touching the cushiony satin behind her back with her fingertips for balance. If only she knew what her parents would want her to do. Since her father had been shot escaping, he must have believed that anything was better than cooperating with the Enclave, even death. But her mother lived still. Had she found a way to resist and still be alive? Gaia couldn't bear to think that anything she might do could put her mother in even greater danger. "What do you want me to do?" Gaia said, her voice small.

  For the first time, Mabrother Iris's lips curved in a slight smile. "There," he said. "I knew you'd be reasonable. You've always served the Enclave well, aside from that one ridiculous aberration after the hanging."

  Gaia's cheeks flamed. "Yes," she improvised. "I'm sorry. I didn't know the laws then."

  He shrugged. "Your training was left to chance, essentially," he said. "You no doubt absorbed some misguided ethical sense that saving a baby 's life is more important than obeying the laws of the Enclave. But our laws exist for the greater good, and it's not for you to flout them."

  She lowered her face, hoping she looked suitably humble. This man believed, completely, that what he was doing was right. That made him even more terrifying. Mabrother Iris re' settled his glasses on his nose and turned to touch the screen again.

  "I need you to tell me what you know about your mother s ribbon," he said.

  Gaia tensed, remembering Leon's warning. "I don't know much," she began. "I think it's a code. I was told to keep it safe

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  and not to lose it." She neglected to add that her mother had warned her to destroy it.

  "Who told you this? Your mother?"

  She shook her head. Hopefully Old Meg was long gone by now and safe in the Dead Forest. If not, she had probably perished on the way. Gaia hesitated a second, then remembered how ruthlessly Mabrother Iris had commanded the shooting of the bird. She could not resist him now. "Old Meg," she said. "She was my mothers friend. She gave the ribbon to me the same night my parents were arrested."

  He frowned slightly, and Gaia guessed this was something he had not known. It gave her a modicum of hope. Maybe he would decide she could be useful to him.

  "Where is Old Meg now?" he asked.

  She averted her eyes, looking at the tall windows to her right. She could see the top of the obelisk emerging through the fog. She shifted uncomfortably on her chair, her hands still tied behind her back.

  "Answer me!" he said sharply.

  Gaia jumped. The canary made a cheap from its cage. "She left," she said. "She said she was leaving town."

  "No one leaves town," he said. "Did she say where she was going?"

  Gaia swallowed hard. "To the wasteland. To the Dead Forest."

  Mabrother Iris's eyebrows lifted in amusement.

  "What is it?" she asked.

  "The Dead Forest doesn't exist," he said. "It's a place from a fairy tale."

  She was confused. "But-- "

  He was shaking hi
s head now, his eyes warming slightly through the tinted lenses. "I keep forgetting you're a child," he said. "From outside the wall, no less." He paused, and rubbed

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  his chin. "This could take some time, I see," he mused. He leaned over the picture table and pushed a button. "I need a room prepared," he said softly. "No, the third floor. And you might as well arrange a shower and fresh clothes for her. There's a slight stench."

  Gaia felt her face redden, but she tried to resist her first reaction of shame. It wasn't her fault the prison didn't give her a chance to clean herself frequently. The man was inspecting her.

  "Are you thirsty?" he asked.

  She nodded. She hadn't eaten that morning. The man reached over to a teapot she hadn't noticed before on a nearby table and poured a cup of tea. The redolent aroma drifted across the room, and she was wondering how she would drink it with her hands tied when he lifted the cup to his own lips.

  "Tell me more about the ribbon," he said.

  Her thirst, hardly noticeable before, now intensified, and she eyed his cup enviously as he cradled it between his fingers.

  "I don't know anything more," she said.

  "You promised to cooperate," he reminded her.

  "I know," she said. "I am." She struggled to find the right words. "Ask me something."

  "Did your mother bring the ribbon with her when you went to deliver babies?"

  "No," she said.

  "Did she ever show it to you before the night Old Meg gave it to you?"

  "No," she said. "I didn't know it existed."

  "Did your mother ever write you notes with unusual alpha-bets?"

  Gaia's heart jumped in her chest. She licked her lips. "No," she said.

  "I can tell when you're lying," he said mildly.

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  "No," she repeated. "My father was the one who liked to play games with letters and songs," she said.

  His eyebrows lifted again. "So is it possible your father made this ribbon?"

  The idea intrigued her, and she shifted her gaze to his. "That makes sense," she said slowly. "He was a tailor. He did all the sewing for our family." She realized now it was possible, even likely, that her mother had told her father about the babies, and her father had recorded the information with the silk thread in the ribbon. He was the true record keeper.

  Mabrother Iris leaned back against the picture table and relaxed one leg over the other. "That is a shame," he said dryly. He'd apparently come to the same conclusion she had.

  She narrowed her eyes. "Because you killed him," she said.

  The man was rubbing his chin again.

  "Why?" she asked. "He was the most gentle man who ever lived."

  He turned his gaze slowly in her direction. "He killed two guards."

  "Trying to escape? I don 't believe you."

  "Trying to get to your mother."

  The ache in Gaia s heart tightened a little more, and for a moment she closed her eyes and imagined her father wrestling with guards, trying to get to her mother. That made sense to her. That was her father. She glared resentfully at the gray-haired little man. The canary made another skittering noise in its seeds and let out a note of birdsong.

  Mabrother Iris set down his teacup and walked over to a little cabinet, opened a drawer, and pulled out a small bottle. He strolled by the windows and stopped there to hold it to the light, gazing at it. Gaia inhaled quickly, recognizing her ink bottle.

  "Let me tell you a little about this ink," he said. "It's ocher,

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  mixed with clay, alcohol, and an antibiotic." He twisted it idly in the light, inspecting the opaque, brown color. "It's crude enough, but functional," he said. "It's the addition of the antibiotic that's unusual, especially given that antibiotics are illegal outside the wall. Did your mother make this ink?"

  She thought fast. He must know at least as much as Leon had known before they talked in the garden, she realized. Did he already know about the freckle pattern because of what shed told Leon the day before? If Leon had relayed this information to Mabrother Iris, this could be a test for her, one she had to pass. On the other hand, if Leon had kept her information secret, she would be revealing it needlessly to her enemy.

  "Gaia?" the man said. He came nearer to her and slowly untwisted the lid. "Don 't waste my time, Gaia," he said ominously. He dipped the tip of his pinky finger into the ink and held it up before his eyes.

  "It's for the freckles," she said.

  He gave a satisfied smile. "Now we're getting somewhere," he said. "Explain."

  Briefly she explained the custom her mother had of giving tea to the mother, and the four quick pricks of ink in the baby's ankle. She watched him closely as she spoke, but she could not tell if she was revealing something he'd never known before. She was afraid. The freckle pattern was the last secret she knew. There was nothing left to tell. If they wanted her to reveal any thing else, she would not be able to help them, and then what? They might kill her. Would they torture her first, or would they harm the innocent people she cared about?

  There was a silence in the room when Gaia finished, and she could hear only a faint buzz from the picture table, and a muted clanging noise from out in the square.

  "Can I see my mother now?" Gaia asked, afraid.

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  Mabrother Iris turned away with a brief, humorless laugh. "What's the hurry, my dear? We've just begun."

  He put the cap back on the ink bottle and dropped it urgently in the little drawer of the cabinet. He brought out a sheet of paper and a pencil. He set them on the table beside her, and then he glanced at her arms and frowned. He touched another button on the picture table.

  "Send a guard up." In the interval while they waited for a guard, Gaia sat stiffly on her chair, growing increasingly uneasy. Mabrother Iris picked up his teacup and went to stand gazing out of the window. Something about his casual unconcern for her chilled her deeply, and when she glanced over at his narrow, white dad shoulders, his prim little shaded glasses, she felt a degree of loathing that surpassed any she'd felt before. Her dislike of him made her even more afraid, until her cold fingers were trembling.

  She remembered what Myrna had told her and tried to hold on to it: survive. That was the goal. So far, she was surviving, but only at the cost of giving up her parents' secrets. What would her mother think of that?

  A light knocking noise sounded on the door behind her, and Mabrother Iris told the guard to untie Gaia. Her arms and shoulders prickled and ached when at last her wrists were free, and she rubbed her cold, stiff hands together until they tingled.

  "The room is ready, Mabrother," the guard said.

  Gaia started at the familiar voice, and turned slightly to see Sgt. Bartlett, his fair hair carefully combed and his expression neutral. She instantly looked away, not wanting to reveal by her manner that she recognized him. It was possible, just possible, that Leon had arranged to have his friend there, but she had no evidence that Sgt. Bartlett would be at all inclined to help her.

  "Good," Mabrother Iris said. "Remain by the door."

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  Gaia heard him retreat behind her, and then Mabrother Iris turned his attention back to Gaia. "I want you to draw the freckle pattern," he said, handing her the pencil.

  She hid her surprise. It would be simple to show him the pattern on her own ankle, but he apparently he didn't know about it, which could only mean Leon hadn't told him. Gaia took the pencil in her cold, clumsy fingers, and forced them to grasp it. Aware that the guard behind her was also watching, she carefully drew the familiar pattern:

  "That's it?" Mabrother Iris sounded surprised. He spun the paper toward himself. "So simple," he added in a different voice, as if that made sense to him. "What does it mean?" he asked.

  Gaia shrugged a shoulder. "I don't now. It's like part of a square."

  Mabrother Iris was still looking at the paper, or she was sure he would have known she was lying. She thought the hint of the Orion constellation w
as a connection to her mother s maiden name, Orion, but if he didn't recognize the pattern, she wasn't going to fill him in.

  "So every baby your mother advanced to the Enclave, every

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  baby from Western Sector Three, has these freckles," Mabrother Iris said. "These same freckles?"

  "Yes. She sometimes helped deliver babies in other sectors if she was needed, but they would be comparatively few."

  "But those babies, too, would be in your mothers code," Mabrother Iris said.

  Gaia couldn't be certain. "I expect so," she said. "I don't know." It made her feel acutely uncomfortable, cooperating with him. Honesty, even partial honesty, had never felt so wrong to her. Her gaze shifted longingly toward the windows. The fog had lifted now, and she could see sunlight on the pale stone of the obelisk.

  "What makes you think the ribbon code is about the quota babies?" she asked.

  "Come. Look at this," Mabrother Iris said. He was standing beside the screen desk again, and he guided Gaia closer. On the top layer was an image of her mother's ribbon, but now it was increased in size so that a section of it was wider than her hand, the silk markings easy to see.

  She gripped the pencil tight in her fingers, willing the little lines to resolve themselves into a pattern she could identify, but the symbols looked more like doodles than any letters she'd ever known. She sensed that Mabrother Iris was watching her face closely, and she tried to concentrate. Her effort only made her more confused and anxious.

  Beside her, the man sighed.

  "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I'm trying."

  "There's no question that we'll eventually decipher it," he said. "We can see that it's a record of births." He pointed to one group of symbols. "These, clearly, are numbers. They repeat, with variations." He pointed to another group, and then another, but she couldn't see how any of them were related. "The other figures are the names of the parents. Combined

 
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