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Birthmarked, p.23
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       Birthmarked, p.23

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  "They must be stopped," she said.

  "How?" Oliver asked.

  "I don't know. But there has to be a way."

  Leon shook his head. "You can't do it, Gaia. They're too powerful. And they'll persuade people this is for the best. They always do." He closed his eyes briefly and rubbed his forehead, as if he were deeply weary. "And maybe it is for the best, in the long run."

  "You can't believe that," she said.

  His voice dropped low. "I don't know what I believe. I don't trust them, but I can, actually, see how finding the suppressor gene could help."

  "You're saying reproductive slavery would be all right?" she demanded. "You're saying taking more babies from their mothers would be fine?"

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  He finally, reluctantly, lifted his gaze to meet Gaia's. If she had ever thought there was something dead inside Leon, it was nothing compared to the bleak, unfeeling emptiness she saw in his eyes now.

  "What happened to you?" Gaia said.

  His gaze dropped and his hands went still on the table.

  Pearl put a hand on her shoulder. "Be easy, Gaia," she said. "It's a lot to take in. I have to tell you, if I heard there was some little boy growing up outside the wall right now who could marry Yvonne some day and they could have healthy children, it would open doors, not shut them. A lot of us trust the Enclave to do the right thing in the long run. They always have."

  "If that's true, why are you helping me right now?" Gaia demanded. "Don't you realise you have to take a side?"

  Pearl folded her strong arms across her chest in a way that implied she could not be budged. "I have to live here," Pearl said quietly. "My life is here. It's not perfect, but it's the best we have. I'm helping you because my heart tells me it's the right thing to do and because I can. That's enough for me."

  Gaia struggled with her confusion and forced herself to think ahead. "We still have to get my mother out," she said. "That's our first priority. Agreed?"

  A sigh of relief went through Yvonne and Oliver, and Pearl hitched up another stool with a shuffling noise. "Here," she said, producing a roll of wide paper.

  "What's this?" Leon asked.

  "A map," Oliver said. "We were looking at it earlier."

  For the first time, the old Leon seemed to stir. "What's your plan, precisely?" he asked, pivoting the map to face him.

  Gaia tilted her face to try to see it at his angle. The parchment was tattered at the edges, and some of the lines were smudged and reworked from repeated updates, but it -was a

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  complete map of the Enclave and Wharfton, with streets and sectors carefully marked. Gaia found it odd to see her world set out in two dimensions, without the elevation that was so much a part of rising from the unlake to the gate, or entering the Enclave and climbing gradually toward the Bastion. Still, it gave a clear perspective on how near and far things were. She traced her finger gently over the little line of Sally Row, where her home stood in Western Sector Three. Her father, she knew, would have loved this map.

  "Mace has gone to ask Masister Khol to take me up to my mom," Gaia said. "I'm going to be disguised as one of the boys, carrying a bag for her. We'll take a cutting tool in case there's a lock or chains we need to deal with, and then we'll throw a rope out the window for me and my mother to climb down."

  Leon looked skeptical.

  "What?" Gaia demanded, crossing her arms over her chest. "Do you have a better idea?"

  He cleared his throat, and to Gaia's annoyance, he couldn't quite hide a smile. "The part with Masister Khol isn't half bad," he said. "But you'll never get down a rope. Not unless you have some mountain-climbing experience I don't know about."

  Oliver laughed. Gaia sat stiffly on her chair, and Pearl nudged her elbow. "We did have our doubts about them climbing down the rope," Pearl admitted.

  Leon held out an upturned hand as if to say, see?

  "You're not the only one with strong arms," Gaia said.

  "I'm sure yours are quite burly," Leon said. "But how are your mom's?"

  Gaia tugged the map back in her direction. "Are you going to help or not? The Bastion and the prison are here, and the southeast tower here." She pointed. "After we get my mother, we can exit either through the main south gate if there's some

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  distraction, or here, where there's a concealed passage by the garbage pit." She looked up to see that Leon had come around to her side of the table and was looking at it over Yvonne's head.

  "Why not the north gate?" he asked.

  "We have friends in Wharfton. I thought they could help us hide and get supplies before we go farther on. How did you get inside the wall from Derek's?" Gaia asked.

  Leon lightly touched the line of the wall in another place. "Here, by the solar grid plant," he said. He hesitated, and then pointed to first a street and then a honey farm on the map. "There's also a tunnel here, and here, that leads into the wine cellar of the Bastion, here." He pointed again.

  Gaia shook her head. "That's too far from the tower to help us." She studied the map and the ominous way the roads all ended at the interior edge of the wall. "Mace offered to smuggle me out in a bicycle cart when the boys go out for wood."

  Leon slowly shook his head. "We can't smuggle out all three of us. It will have to be this passage, here." He pointed to the spot by the solar grid plant, on the southeastern edge of the Enclave.

  All three? she thought. Was Leon planning on going outside the wall with them? "I suppose," she agreed.

  "Then what will you do?" he asked. "Have you thought about surviving in the wasteland at all?"

  She traced her finger north to where the map ended. "The Dead Forest is north of here. That's where we're going. To the community there."

  Leon leaned back slightly. Yvonne hitched her stool nearer and leaned far over the map, inspecting it. Oliver and Pearl exchanged a glance.

  Finally Leon spoke. "There's nothing north of here but wasteland, Gaia," he said quietly. "The Dead Forest is a myth."

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  Gaia glanced at Pearl and the others, waiting for them to contradict him, but they remained silent.

  "I thought so, too, once," she said. "But it's real." In the face of their doubt, she tried to remember how she knew it was real. "Outside the wall we know this," she said. "People go there."

  "Because they die," Oliver said.

  "No," she said. "I have this friend, Old Meg, who said she was going there." She stopped, looking at Leon and remembering how he had asked her about Old Meg the night she left Wharfton.

  "And does anyone ever come back from the Dead Forest?" Leon asked pointedly.

  She knew what the truth was, even if she had no proof. "No," she said.

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  Chapter 21 Happiness

  LITTLE YVONNE LEANED closer to Gaia and put her slim arm around her shoulders. "I believe in the Dead Forest," she said sweetly.

  Pearl let out a low laugh. "Come on, pumpkin. You're nearly asleep on your stool. I think we should all try to get some rest, frankly. Yvonne and Oliver, go on to bed now."

  Yvonne complained briefly, but Pearl was firm, and soon the brother and sister said their good-nights and left. Gaia didn't see how she could sleep with her plans still so inchoate, and she drew the map nearer again. When Pearl braced a hand on the doorway and turned once more toward the kitchen, Gaia glanced up. Leon was on his feet, looking respectfully in Pearl's direction.

  "We don't have another bed," Pearl said. "But you could sleep on the floor in Oliver's room. I'll have him leave you a blanket. I'm sorry. It's the best I can do."

  "Don't worry about me, please," Leon said.

  It occurred to Gaia that Leon had risen deliberately, according to Pearl the deference a gentleman routinely showed a lady. Now Pearl straightened and cast a last look in Gaia's direction.

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  "Get some sleep, Gaia," she said. "Tomorrow's going to be a long day."

  "I will."

  "Do you mind turning
the light out? You can open the door of the oven for some light. Just bank the coals and close the door before you go to bed. I expect Mace back in another hour or so, but keep the door locked."

  "Of course," Gaia said.

  In another moment, there came the quiet, hollow sound of a door being closed down the hall, and Gaia knew she and Leon were alone. He flicked off the overhead light, and she waited for him to open the door of the oven before she blew out the last candle. The warm, golden light from the oven spilled out onto the floor and brought little reflections to light on the rims of pans and cooking utensils hanging on the walls. She became aware of dough rising on a rack of trays behind her, as if it were gently alive with its yeasty scent.

  He sat slowly again, and pressed his face into his hands so that his dark hair spiked through his fingers. She loosened her grip on her sweater and fingered one of the little buttons of her dress. He'd hardly looked at her the entire time they'd been talking with Pearl's family, and she wondered if that would change now that they were alone.

  After a moment, he slouched sideways, leaning his stubbly cheek in one palm, his gaze toward the map. He ran a finger along the lines of Sally Row like she had earlier. "Were you happy growing up outside the wall?" he asked.

  The question was so unexpected she found herself letting down her guard a bit. "Why do you ask?"

  "I can't help wondering if I would have been better off out there, growing up in Derek's family."

  She smiled. "That's ridiculous. You've had every advantage."

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  "Have I?"

  "How can you even ask that? You've had decent food from the minute you were advanced. And warm clothes and an education. Not to mention rich, powerful parents. I saw your glamorous life on the Tvaltar whenever there was a Protectorat Family Special, so don't tell me your life wasn't perfect."

  She reached out to trace a black burn mark on the tabletop. Her eyes were slowly adjusting to the near-darkness, and as long as she avoided looking directly into the oven, her eyes stayed perceptive. She could see him well enough to realise he was back to avoiding her gaze.

  "So what was it like for you, growing up?" he asked. "Really."

  "Really," she echoed slowly, trying to figure out how to sum up an entire childhood. "It was pretty good when I was really little. We were poor, like everyone, but I didn't know that. Our house was at-- well, you know it's at the far edge of Western Sector Three, and I liked it there, with all that room to explore and grow." She nodded toward that part of the map. "My parents worked during the day and kept me near them, but in the evening I could always get one of them to go exploring with me. I loved that, especially going down into the unlake."

  "And did you have friends?"

  "I had two friends. Well, one really. Emily lived across the street from me. We liked to play dress-up with my dad's scraps of fabric."

  "And are you still close?" he asked.

  She glanced over at him, puzzled. "Why do you want to know all of this?"

  His voice was quiet in the silent room. "I'm just trying to picture your life. I'm trying to figure out how you're so different from anyone else I've ever met."

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  This surprised her. "I am?"

  He shifted in his chair so that his profile was aimed toward the oven, and one of his boots extended toward the hearth. The door was propped open, and the red coals inside still pulsed with heat. The collar of his black shirt fell open slightly and slid away from the nape of his neck.

  "What changed as you got older?" he asked.

  Gaia tried to think what to tell him, and at the same time, she felt an odd urge to resist him, like he was pulling at some' thing fragile inside her. She stepped over to the sink and turned on the tap for a cup of water. "Do you want some water?" she asked.

  "Please."

  She poured another for herself and brought them over. "Do you have any idea how amazing it is to me that I can get water out of faucet in this kitchen?"

  He raised the cup to his lips, but held it there without drinking. "Explain."

  She pulled up her chair again and swallowed a sip. "To get water outside the wall, I used to take my yoke pole and two huge bottles to the spigot in the wall for our sector. Usually old Perry, the waterman, was there with his big buckets and funnels, and he'd help me load up. I'd give him some basil or eggs in return. But if he wasn't there, I'd have to sit at the spigot waiting slowly to fill each bottle. The spigots are really slow, you know. Sometimes there was a line. It could take ten minutes or more to fill my own bottles, and then I'd carry them back with my yoke."

  "I thought water was delivered to your family. That was one of your payments for your mom being a midwife."

  She laughed. "How much water do you think a family goes through? That payment never lasted out the week, and when my father was dying fabric, we needed bottles and bottles of water."

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  She leaned her elbows on the table and took another sip from her cup.

  "So you hauled water," he said. "What else?"

  She shrugged. "I helped my mom with her herb garden and took care of the chickens. I'd run errands for my dad. I don't know. Gleaned. Hung laundry. Helped cook. All the kids I knew were always working."

  "But were you happy?" he asked.

  She didn't know how to answer him. Would he want to know that she'd had nightmares for months after one of the neighborhood boys died from a fever? Or that kids teased Gaia endlessly about her face? Those walks with the loads of water were the worst, when she couldn't run, couldn't use her hands to defend herself, and any pig of a boy who wanted to throw something at her could. She'd been starved for ideas and information, never able to sate her curiosity. There had been the slow, burning grudge against injustice, too, as she'd grown to realize people on the other side of the wall weren't struggling like they were in Wharfton.

  Then again, she'd loved her parents deeply and joyfully.

  Gaia set aside her cup, grateful when he didn't press for an answer. Good or bad, happy or not, that life was over for her now. She couldn't exactly go back and resume her duties as midwife of Western Sector Three.

  Her hair was loose, her bangs falling irritatingly into her eyes. She reached up to plait some of the ends into a little braid, adding in just enough so that she could make some of the hair stay behind her right ear, at least until it all slipped free again. "I'm sure you were happier inside the wall than you would have been outside," she said. "You know, you could probably still work things out with your family. You haven't done anything too unforgivable, have you?"

  "I needed to think and find my real father, so I left. Does

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  that sound unforgivable? They sent soldiers to track me down." He shifted again to lean an arm on the table and drum his fingers once on its surface. "We should work out our plans for tomorrow."

  She nodded. "I'll go up with Masister Khol to get my mother and try to come right back down the stairs with her. Then we'll bring her back here and at night we'll figure out how to get outside the wall."

  "If you need to, you can go into the Bastion. There are interior doors to the tower." He pointed to indicate the direction on the map.

  "That's good to know."

  "If you don't come back out, I'll go in to find you. If you run out of options, try to work your way upward, toward the roof. They won't expect that. And I'll start looking for you from the top down."

  It was there, unspoken between them. Why would he help her now when he hadn't helped her before? Sgt. Bartlett had found a way to help her out of the Bastion. Why couldn't Leon have done the same thing?

  "I'm still taking the rope," she said.

  "Go ahead. Just don't get your neck broken. I don't suppose you'd let me go in for you instead."

  She shook her head. She wouldn't trust him to do it right.

  "That's what I thought," he said. "Even if you do think I have strong arms."

  Startled, she glanced up to find him watching her. "I d
idn't exactly say that as a compliment."

  "No?"

  A bit of ember shifted in the oven, making a brief flare of light, but otherwise the room was still. She didn't know what to make of him, or how to feel, but it was far more confusing

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  when he was inspecting her with a curious, receptive expression.

  "Are you teasing me?" she asked.

  He started slowly to smile. "Should I?"

  She was momentarily speechless. Then she frowned. "What do you know about Sergeant Bartlett?" she asked.

  "Besides that he helped you out? That messed up every thing, you know."

  "That depends on your perspective," she said.

  "Are you friends with him?"

  "Sort of," she said. "What's he like?"

  Leon stood and took a knickknack off the mantel: a tiny eggbeater that looked more like a toy than a tool. He spun the little wheel. "Jack's like a lot of guys. Works hard. Not a bad shot. I guess he likes to sing. Why?"

  Gaia wished she'd had a chance to know him.

  Leon gave the wheel such a spin that one of the beaters broke off. He swore and reached for the little piece. "Forget it, Gaia. He's not your type."

  "And how would you know what my type is?" she asked.

  "It just isn't Jack."

  "Why, because he's nice to me?"

  He shoved the little pieces of the broken eggbeater at her. "Can you fix this?" he asked.

  "He's my brother, all right? Jack Bartlett is my brother, Odin Stone."

  Leon sat again, his expression puzzled. "Jack is? But he doesn't look anything like you."

  "Thank you. Brilliant observation. Very useful."

 
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