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Birthmarked, p.21
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       Birthmarked, p.21

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Mace let out a laugh. "You're taking this way out of proportion," he said.

  "No," she disagreed, stepping nearer to the table. "We have to stop them before it gets out of control." Her mind leaped ahead. "We have to get rid of the wall."

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  Mace lifted his hand. "Nobody's ripping down any wall," he said calmly.

  "I don't understand," Yvonne said. "What do the freckles have to do with getting married?"

  Gaia leaned closer to Yvonne so she could speak to her at eye level. She forced her voice to stay calm. "The freckles show that an advanced person was born in my neighborhood outside the wall. That's all. But for some reason, the Protectorat cares especially about those people, enough to take them tonight."

  "And you think he'll experiment on them or something?" Yvonne asked, her eyes widening.

  Gaia didn't know what to tell her. She glanced up at Pearl.

  "No," Pearl said soothingly, putting her hands on the girl's shoulders. "He wouldn't do that. Gaia just got a little excited, but she's just guessing at things, aren't you, Gaia?"

  Gaia glanced at the girl with her large, solemn eyes. The truth was, she didn't know what the Protectorat's plan was, but she was certain he had one, and that she was missing an important piece of the puzzle. "I think," said Gaia, making a decision. "That you'd better help me get outside the wall. As soon as possible. I don't want to get you all into trouble."

  "No," said Pearl. "I don't believe in this tear-down-the-wall agenda, but you need to stay here, with us. You'll be safe here, and you can think through your plans rationally. There's no immediate hurry. Whatever help you need, we'll give. Isn't that right, Mace?"

  His dark eyebrows were set in a line, and he nodded.

  Gaia took a deep breath, and finally took a little bite of the bread in her fingers. It was so good, so moist and buttery and rich, that she made an involuntary crooning noise in the back of her throat.

  Yvonne laughed. "See, Mom? I'm not the only one who

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  makes that noise. Don't we make the most incredible cinnamon rolls?"

  Gaia swallowed, smiling. Something about Yvonne re' minded Gaia of Emily when she was little, and she couldn't help liking her. "Yes. They're spectacular."

  "Would you look at the time?" Mace said. "We've got some work to do. Yvonne, go and get Oliver back down here. Then see if you can't catch some sleep before school. Take Gaia up with you. She's not leaving today, in any case."

  Pearl was already dumping a huge pile of dough onto a floured board, and she punched it powerfully with her fist before she broke it in quarters and started kneading.

  Gaia slid out of the way.

  Yvonne pulled her hand and grabbed an extra cinnamon roll on the sly. "Come on," she said, and scampered up the narrow wooden staircase, her feet making a quick, merry clatter. It took Gaia a moment to realise why the noise surprised her so much: it was a sound of happiness, and she hadn't been around laughter or happiness for a long, long time. She took a deep breath, deliberately forced the tension to ease out of her shoulders, and climbed up after the girl.

  Gaia awoke to the noise of a door closing downstairs. The room she shared with Yvonne was in the back of the apartment over the bakery, and for the three nights she'd been there, she'd been smelling the bread in the ovens all through her dreams: warm, buttery dreams that soothed her heart and gave her hope that everything might still work out all right. She missed her parents, and for some maddening reason, she missed Leon, too. She had despised him as the worst sort of betrayer when he left her in the Bastion, but based on what Sgt. Bartlett had said, he had been detained by his father. It seemed likely to her that he was enjoying a nice cup of tea with

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  his father and Mabrother Iris right now, happy to finally be back in their good graces. But maybe, just maybe, he was trapped in the Protectorate web as much as she was.

  She wished she could have gotten more information out of Sgt. Bartlett-- Odin. She pondered her brother. Did he have any memory at all of his life before he was advanced, she wondered. Did his old name register in any deep part of his mind? She knew so little about him, but he'd done a brave thing, helping her. He had done it without even knowing yet that she was his sister, too. She hoped he was okay.

  Late morning light dropped in at the window, barely touching the white curtain that covered the lower half of the glass and swayed gently. Just outside, the leaves of an aspen flickered. A bee flew against the window with a faint thud, failed to find the opening several inches below, and flew away again.

  Much as she felt safe with Mace's family, Gaia knew she couldn't stay. It was too dangerous for them, and she had to resume her life somehow, somewhere. There must be a way to find her mother still, now that she was out of prison. Tempting as it was, she couldn't destroy the Enclave single handedly, so she needed a realistic plan.

  She considered all her options, even the bad ones. If she left the Enclave and Wharfton, she had no idea where to find the Dead Forest. If it even existed. Mabrother Iris had been so certain it was a myth. As far as she knew, her grandmother, Danni Orion, had been dead for years, but now she wondered if her parents had used the terms interchangeably: dead and Dead Forest. She shook her head. She had been very young when her grandmother disappeared. All Gaia could remember of her was a gilt-edged monocle she had worn on a beaded chain around her neck, for she had been intrigued by the way it caught the sunlight. And then, gradually, Gaia had understood

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  one thing clearly: her grandmother was gone and was never returning. She had been as good as dead.

  Gaia circled back to the cipher of Old Meg. The Dead Forest must exist. Everything else Old Meg had said had turned out to be true. How could Gaia find her mother, rescue her, and take her to a place she couldn't locate?

  Another cinnamon bun might help.

  Gaia sat up and slipped on the soft tan dress that Pearl had given her. There was a row of small white buttons down the front, and the waistline nipped in before the skirt filled out again with no concern for conserving fabric. She couldn't help flipping back the hem to inspect the workmanship of the seams. They were no finer than what her father might have sewn outside the wall, but the cut of the dress was distinctly different from the outside style. More feminine.

  Footsteps beat a hollow rhythm on the stairs. She was reaching for her shoes with her toes when Mace's hand braced on the doorjamb, and he hauled himself up the last step and into the room.

  "Hello," he said, smiling his sweet, broad smile. He was panting from exertion. "You re up, then."

  She gave him a little smile, and smoothed back her brown hair. It was getting a bit longer by now, long enough to get in her eyes but not long enough to stay behind her ears. He sat opposite her on Yvonne's rumpled bed. The girl was long gone with her brother to school. At least that much of what Gaia had believed about the Enclave was true: the children all went to school during the day. Yvonne had told Gaia that she was learning about adding glucose from the honey farm to the mycoprotein vats, and Oliver was studying solar panel technology.

  For a few short days, even though they were in danger every minute that she stayed with them, they had absorbed her

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  into their family. Their loss of Lila shifted like an empty shadow about the rooms, strangely familiar to Gaia. Yet, unlike her family's loss of Arthur and Odin, the Jacksons' loss was raw. They evinced no mitigating belief that Lila was alive and better off someplace else, and in that way, the Jacksons' loss seemed worse.

  Gaia fingered the ruffle of a little pillow on Lila's bed. Mace leaned forward and gently slid it out of her hands to hold it himself. "She was younger than you," he said. "Not yet thirteen."

  'Tm sorry," she said softly. She noticed a sizable bruise on Mace's arm and wondered if he had a mild version of hemephilia himself. "Wasn't there anything they could do to treat your daughter's illness?"

  Mace shook his head. "One doctor was trying to. She tried i
njecting patients with a blood-clotting protein, but many of them developed antibodies and died anyway. The Protectorat shut down her research and put her in jail. He accused her of starting a hospital."

  "Myrna," Gaia said.

  He tilted his face, interested. "Myrna Silk, yes," he said. "I accept the Protectorat's decision. It's not about curing one child. It's about solving the problem on a larger scale, maybe with a genetic breakthrough, for all of us." He turned the pillow over, and she watched him trace his strong finger over two initials embroidered in purple thread: L. J. "But still. I miss my girl."

  Gaia leaned across the space between the beds to rest her hand on his. She didn't know what to say, so she simply stayed quiet with him. After a long moment, he put the pillow back on Lila's bed.

  "Tell me something," he asked gently. "Are you sure your mother's still alive?"

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  She pushed the hair back from her forehead. "I saw her sleeping in a round cell. On Mabrother Iris's screen desk. He has a camera on her and two other women. That was four mornings ago. She was still alive then."

  "A round cell?" He sounded surprised.

  Well, the walls were curved. I saw a curtain move in the wind, so it has a window. I don't know if the window has bars." She stood to pace, wrapping her arms around her waist, but she could only take a couple of steps in the little room before she had to turn again.

  Mace was pulling absently at his ear. "I may know where your mother is," he said.

  Gaia inhaled sharply. "Where? What do you know?"

  He spoke thoughtfully. 'I've heard there are three women in the southeast tower of the Bastion. The room you're describing sounds like the place. It's a special cell they keep for important people. A pregnant political prisoner there has a midwife and another attendant with her all the time, so she can't do any thing to herself or her baby."

  "And you think the midwife is my mother?"

  "It's possible," he said. "The prisoner was moved there around the same time your mother was taken out of the prison."

  "How do you know all this?" Gaia asked.

  "There's a woman at the Nursery who's friends with my wife. They go way back, and they still get together for coffee every couple of weeks. She's the one who told us about the political prisoner."

  "Masister Khol?" Gaia asked.

  His eyes flashed. "You know her?"

  Gaia's heart lifted with another burst of hope. "She gave me a message from my mother once. I think she might help us. Do you really think that's where my mother is?"

  Mace crossed his massive arms over his chest. "I'm almost

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  positive. Your mother would be kind to a pregnant prisoner, wouldn't she? Even if your mother was a prisoner herself?"

  Gaia laughed and pushed her bangs out of her face again. "My mother would be kind to the Protectorat himself if he were pregnant. That's what she does." Her mind was leaping ahead, trying to figure out how soon she might be able to get to her, and how she would get her free. A tower sounded bad, but not as hopeless as Q cell. Her excitement slowed.

  "The camera," she said. She slid her hands into the pockets of her dress. "There's a camera aimed at the women in the tower."

  "Ah," Mace said. "That's another problem, then."

  They couldn't just cover up the camera, she realized. She didn't even know how she'd get back into the Bastion, let alone into a tower prison cell. She sat on the bed again. If only she had Leon to help her.

  Wrong, she thought. Leon couldn't help her. Even if he weren't off passing tea cakes to the Protectorat, he would probably keep telling her to cooperate. And where had that led her?

  "What do you know about the Dead Forest?" she asked. "Mabrother Iris said it didn't exist, that it was only something out of a fairy tale. But a friend of mine said she was going there."

  Mace's eyebrows jogged up and down, and he pushed out his lips in contemplation. "I don't really know about it," Mace said. He eyed her warily. "If it exists, it must be way out in the wasteland, or past it. You're not thinking of going there?"

  "Where else is there to go?" she asked. "We can't stay here. If they catch us again, I know they'll kill us. It's amazing they haven't already. As long as I was cooperating, there was a chance they would let me go, but I ran."

  "You don't know they'd kill you," he said.

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  "Why not? They hang people all the time for less. Why not kill me, when I really am a traitor?"

  He leaned back, resting his weight on one hand. "It depends on your perspective," he said. "Think from the Enclave's point of view. It's true you saved that convict's baby. Very high pre file maneuver, that. And, you broke out of the Bastion. On the other hand, you have valuable skills as a midwife. You also have a lot of potential, genetically speaking."

  Gaia eyed him curiously. "You mean, they would keep me alive because I could become pregnant?"

  Mace lifted a hand. "Why not?"

  She flushed with indignation. "I'm not some cow they can use for breeding. And there's nothing extraordinary about my genes just because I'm from outside the wall."

  He shrugged. "Perhaps not. But you are from Western Sector Three. There are many ways to be a criminal or a hero. Don't forget that."

  Gaia leaned against the doorframe and idly rubbed a little dent mark in the blue wood.

  "You know that soldier you said you escaped with?" Mace said.

  "Sgt. Bartlett," she said. She hadn't told them he was her brother.

  "I found out today that he's disappeared. I don't mean arrested. He was seen outside the wall, asking questions about your parents, and now he's gone."

  Gaia felt relief for her brother, and then a stirring of hope. There might be other ways out of the wall, and maybe Sgt. Bartlett had gone to the Dead Forest.

  She turned again to Mace. "I need to know everything I can about the Dead Forest. How far away it is, who goes there, how to find it. Is that where you get your wood?"

  Mace shook his head, his expression puzzled. "There are

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  some windfalls east of here, left over from a blight a few years back. That's where we get our wood."

  She came near and sat beside him on the bed. "I need to know what's out there," she said softly, but with growing conviction. "I'm going to find my mother somehow, and when I do, I'm taking her to the Dead Forest." As she said it, she realized this had been her plan all along, no matter how crazy it sounded.

  She studied his heavy profile, with his large nose and ruddy cheeks. Then he clasped his warm hand upon hers. "I can't say I know anything about the Dead Forest, but don't worry," he said. "We'll think it all through carefully. I'll talk it over with Pearl, and we'll find a way."

  Her gaze fell again on Lila's small embroidered pillow, a tangible reminder of loss. And courage. Her mother was still out there, alive and needing her, and Gaia wasn't going to give up.

  "I'm all she has," Gaia said. "If I can't free her, nobody will."

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  Chapter 20 Forty-Six Chrome Spoons

  IT WAS YVONNE'S IDEA to make the mask. She first suggested that they just cover Gala's scar with flour and cinnamon, but since the uneven surface of Gaia's left cheek would still be conspicuous, Yvonne suggested a true mask.

  "I don't see the point," Oliver said. "All of the Enclave is on the lookout for her now. She's been on the TV broadcast for the last three nights. She'll never even get close to the southeast tower. As soon as anyone stops her and looks closely at her face, they'll see her mask and know it's the girl with the scar."

  "Not if it's a good mask," Yvonne argued.

  "And not if she's a boy," Pearl added.

  It was night, and they'd pulled shades over the windows of the bakery. Licks of firelight were visible in the cracks around the iron door of the brick oven, and within, trays of bread were baking. The redolent, yeasty smell made the kitchen warm, and the lamp above the table made the shadows withdraw to the corners. A pot of leftover soup from dinner was co
oling on the hearth. Gaia gazed around at the wooden paddles, the wheeled racks with tray after tray of dark, baked loaves, and pale, white loaves that still needed their time in the oven. She didn't know

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  when Mace and his family ever slept, and now, at nearly mid' night, they were still up and working on a plan to help her get to her mother. Mace had left to try to talk to Masister Khol.

  Gaia looked doubtfully at Pearl. "I may be ugly, but I'm no boy."

  Pearl sat beside her at the table and took Gaia's slender fingers in her warm hands. "Maces apprentice isn't much bigger than you," Pearl said. "We have extra clothes for him here, and if we pad you a bit in the right places, we can disguise your figure."

  As Gaia realized they were in earnest, she could feel nerves jangling in her belly. She pulled her fingers free from Pearl's. "But will a mask really work?"

  Pearl took Gaia's chin in her fingers and tilted her face to the light. Gaia submitted to the inspection and kept her gaze on Pearl's eyes. She knew what Pearl saw.

  "How did this happen, child?" Pearl asked gently.

  It was such an old story that Gaia should have been inured to telling it again, but somehow, because these were her friends, it bothered her more to tell it. "When I was a baby learning to get around, I walked into a hot vat of beeswax. Not into the liquid wax, you understand, although some had dripped out. I walked up against the vat itself."

  Pearl frowned, and traced her thumb gently along Gaia's sensitive jaw line. Her wide, no-nonsense face was hard for Gaia to read. Then she reached for Gaia s hands again and inspected her palms, one by one, turning them upward as a fortune teller might.

 
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