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Birthmarked, p.24
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       Birthmarked, p.24

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  "All right. No need to get touchy."

  "Jack Bartlett got me out of the Bastion. Jack Bartlett didn't leave me there with no way to get out and no explanation."

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  She reached for the little pieces and began to arrange them in a row on the table. Leon lifted his empty cup and turned it in his hands, and as the silence stretched out, she knew she had to know, even if she revealed how vulnerable she was.

  "Why did you leave me?" she asked in a tight voice.

  She watched him slowly turn the cup once more and loop his thumb in the handle. When he looked at her this time, his eyes were alive with regret. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "It was a mistake."

  "But why did you do it?"

  His fingers stilled. "I thought I could negotiate for you and your mother. When I saw the girls in the courtyard, I realized Mabrother Iris must already be acting on your information somehow, and I thought he would be grateful. I thought I could persuade my father and Mabrother Iris to let you go."

  "But they wouldn't?"

  He shook his head. "They refused. They wanted me to persuade you to return to them, like I said before, as their newest hero."

  "And you said no."

  His eyes flicked away. "Gaia," he began. "It was utterly hopeless. I felt like I'd betrayed you completely, like they completely manipulated me. And then they started explaining about the suppressor gene and how much your mothers records mean to them." He glanced back, his lips parted. His cheeks had taken on color with the warmth of the oven, and his blue eyes were dark and alive. "My fathers an incredibly persuasive man. I'd forgotten."

  "And that's when he convinced you their plan is okay?" She could feel her anger percolating up again.

  "I don't know," he said. "I don't know what I think. If your father told you something he was completely convinced of, wouldn't you listen to him?"

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  "My fathers dead."

  She shoved her chair back with a jerk. She was trying to understand Leon, but it was hard. It all seemed to come back to his relationship with his father. Much as he tried to deny it, the Protectorat really was his father. He was the one who had raised him, and he was the one who still had strings in him, even though they'd been estranged for years. That much was clear to her. It seemed terribly unfair to her that he still had his father, even as difficult as that relationship was, when her own father was lost to her.

  "I'd like to hear about your family now," she said. That would only be fair.

  "It's a boring story."

  "Just any old thing," she said. "I told you about my child' hood."

  "All right," he said slowly. "Maybe you'd like to know a secret about the Protectorat Family Specials."

  She guessed from his tone that they weren't all they'd seemed to be. She could still picture the sunny scenes of the family in the Bastion gardens, the boys with their impeccably white shorts and clean knees, the twin sisters in matching yellow dresses. A particular apple picking scene came to mind. It had been her favorite, with the kids swinging from the low' hanging, apple-laden branches.

  "We practiced them for weeks," he said. "There was not one unstaged, genuine moment in any single one."

  "You're kidding."

  "Believe me. We kids hated doing them, and finally, when Rafael was around seven, he flatly refused to do any more. It was the only time I was grateful he could throw a fit."

  "What about your sisters? Did you play with them when you were a kid? Hide-and-seek in the Bastion?"

  "Hide-and-seek," he said slowly, and she could hear the

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  weight of complex emotions behind the simple words. She would have liked to see his eyes, but he turned toward the oven again.

  "We did play hide-and-seek. And chess. And all sorts of games. They liked it when I lost." He touched the door of the oven with his boot. "It's Fiona and Evelyns birthday tomorrow," he said.

  Gaia was surprised. "You mean, today?"

  "Yes. I guess today. This is the first year they've celebrated since Fiona died," he went on. "Evelyn 's turning fourteen. The family's invited half of the wealthiest families to the Bastion for a party. There's supposed to be fireworks at the end."

  "Are you supposed to go, too?" she asked.

  He shrugged and gave half a laugh. "Evelyn invited me, but I was told quite clearly not to come."

  She waited, hoping he would continue. "Tell me," she said softly. "I want to know more. What were you like when you were little?"

  He smiled slightly. "I was the most uncoordinated kid imaginable. When I started playing soccer, I would fall every time I kicked the ball. I mean, actually fall down. But I stuck with it. Then it took me forever to learn how to read. I couldn't keep the letters straight. They thought I was stupid. Even Rafael learned to read before I did."

  "I didn't know that."

  Leon shrugged. "They didn't put that in the specials. I made up for it later, though, once I finally got the hang of it. I loved school."

  She envied him that. One by one, she clicked together the pieces of the little toy eggbeater. "How much younger than you is Rafael?"

  "Genevieve had Rafael when I was four, and the twins showed up the year after that." The golden light from the oven

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  reflected along his nose and jaw. His gaze was pensive. "Genevieve is really the only mother I've ever known, and she was very kind to me when I was little. I'll give her that. But my father absolutely doted on his new family, and I was, well-- " He paused. "It was natural, I suppose, for the rest of them to be close."

  It was curious to see Leon become more serious as he talked about his family. Gaia tried to remember the boy version of Leon in the Tvaltar specials, the dark-haired, older one, usually positioned in the back. She'd always been captivated by the little sisters with their bright curls and laughing faces, so it had been natural to overlook him. It wasn't hard to believe that Leon had been subtly excluded from his own family.

  "So, Fiona?" she asked. "Do you miss her?"

  Leon shook his head briefly. "I don't talk about her."

  She remembered what the women of Q cell had said, and wondered if she could get to the truth behind the rumors. "And your aunt?" she asked.

  He turned, his expression puzzled. "Aunt Maura? What about her?"

  She swallowed thickly and wished she could take it back.

  "What have you heard about my aunt?" he asked, his voice colder.

  "Nothing."

  "No. You've heard some rumor, haven't you? What have you heard?"

  She looked miserably down at her hands and gave the toy a little spin. It worked perfectly. She could feel the heat rising in her cheeks.

  He let out a sharp laugh. "I should have known," he said. "I'm telling you about my family, things I've never told anybody, and you just want to know if the rumors of incest are true."

  "I didn't say that."

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  "They're not. Okay? I haven't slept with anyone, related to me or not. I don't much care if you believe me, but there it is."

  She wanted to sink down into a pool of black slime and evaporate. "I'm sorry."

  Leon stood, took the miniature eggbeater to return it to the mantel, and moved to the sink. She heard him quietly cleaning out his cup, and the faint squeak of the faucet. Something about his controlled, quiet movements made her feel even worse. When he held out a hand for her own cup, she passed it to him wordlessly. He washed it, too, and turned it upside down on the rack.

  "You don't have to help me tomorrow," Gaia said.

  He turned, folded his arms, and leaned back against the counter. "You know what? You re pretty good at pushing people away from you. Did you know that? Maybe that's why you had only one friend growing up."

  She shook her head. "That's mean."

  He ran his hand back through his hair, gripping it above his forehead. He looked tired, and exasperated, and hurt. Gaia had no idea what to say or how to take them back to the comfort' able feeling they'd had be
fore. She only knew she didn't want him mad at her. And that made her feel weak and vulnerable, which she didn't like at all.

  She stood and backed toward the stairs that led to the room she shared with Yvonne. "It's late," she said lamely.

  "Fine. Go to bed, then."

  "Are you going to sleep in Oliver's room?"

  "No."

  She glanced back at the table, chairs, and stools, and the totally utilitarian space of the kitchen, knowing there would be nowhere comfortable here for him to sleep. She was about to protest when she heard a soft click from the hallway and then quick footsteps. Pearl entered the kitchen doorway.

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  "Is Mace here?" she asked in a worried voice. "I thought I heard him coming."

  "No," Gaia said. But a moment later, a noise came at the door, a low, distinct pattern of knocking.

  "Close the oven," Pearl whispered.

  As soon as Leon did and the room was dark, Pearl unlocked and opened the door to the outside. Mace Jackson slipped inside, followed closely by a woman in a long white cloak. A fresh swirl of cool air spiraled through the kitchen as the door closed again, and then the dim room was very still. The fiery flickers around the edge of the oven door were the only light.

  "Pearl?" Mace asked in the darkness.

  "At last," she said.

  When Gaia struck a match to light the little candle on the brick of the oven, Mace and Pearl were in each others arms. With Pearl's broad shoulders and Mace's powerful bulk, they were like two bears embracing. Gaia had to smile.

  "Who's this?" Mace asked, his voice deep and low, his black eyes directed over Pearl's shoulder toward Leon.

  "He's a friend of Gaia's," Pearl said quickly.

  "He's Leon Quarry," Mace said severely, releasing Pearl. "Do you have any idea what would happen to us if they found him here?"

  Gaia stepped slightly in front of Leon. "It's not like that," she said. "I'm sorry, Mace. I never meant to-- "

  "Derek Vlatir sent me," Leon interrupted. "He's my father. He told me to come to you."

  Mace peered at Leon closely, and then he picked up a knife. "I don't care what Derek said."

  "Mace," Pearl said firmly, with a warning hand on his arm.

  "Please," Gaia said. "He's with us now. With me. We just want to rescue my mother, and then we'll leave."

  Mace's eyes flashed to Gaia, and he looked pained. "Not

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  him, Gaia. He's worse than scum." His voice dropped in warning. "You don't know what he's like."

  "Yes, I do," she said. "And I'm telling you to trust me."

  She turned to Leon beside her and saw his eyes were tight with restrained anger. He said nothing to defend himself. Mace made a disgusted noise and jabbed the knife back in its block. Then the woman in white who had remained by the door moved forward into the candlelight. Gaia recognized Masister Khol. Her lips were turned down with disdain.

  "Who would have guessed? Both of you here," Masister Khol said, looking first at Gaia and then Leon. "The whole city's looking for you."

  Leon's voice was carefully neutral. "Have you come to help us or threaten us?"

  Masister Khol stiffened into a more imposing figure. "I didn't know you were involved with the girl," she said to Leon.

  "Wait. Please," Gaia said, stepping forward again. "We just need your help to get me to my mother. That's all. If you 11 just do that much, we'll be grateful."

  "It's never just that much," Masister Khol said. "I passed you a note once from your mother, but did it end there?"

  Gaia didn't know what to say. She turned to Pearl, and Pearl moved beside Masister Khol, speaking too softly for Gaia to understand her.

  Gaia glanced at Leon, but his face was impassive. Mace tugged on the overhead light. Crowding past Leon and ignoping everything else, Mace washed his hands. Then he pulled a wide, flat board from a shelf, set it on the table and dusted it with flour from a sack on the counter.

  Gaia stood helplessly, watching Pearl and Masister Khol, until finally they turned.

  Masister Khol spoke to Mace as if he were the only person in the room. "Sometime this morning, I'll be crossing the

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  Square of the Bastion with a heavy basket. If I see a boy there to carry it for me, I'll take him with me into the southeast tower. Nothing more. He can stay for five minutes. I have important work to do for the Enclave and no time for this nonsense. I refuse to be implicated if a crime is committed."

  Mace bowed his head briefly. Gaia had a million questions, but Mace gave her a hard look, and she remained silent.

  "Thank you, Joyce," Pearl said. "I appreciate it. I really do."

  Masister Khol turned to the door. With one hand on the latch, she paused and turned her face toward Pearl. "If I could lessen your real loss, Pearl," she said, "you know that I would. I wish you wouldn't deceive yourself that a stunt like this makes any difference." A moment later, she was gone.

  Pearl dashed the back of her hand across her eyes and clapped her hands together once. "You heard Joyce," Pearl said. She reached for her apron. "We've got no time at all. She'll take you up, Gaia, but the rest is up to you. She'll have to be able to say she was tricked just like anyone else. Let's get Oliver and Yvonne."

  Everyone jumped to action, moving as swiftly and quietly as possible. Oliver was sent to find some of Jet's apprentice clothes for Gaia, and some of his own for Leon. Yvonne was braiding lengths of laundry line into a sturdy rope. Mace worked the dough before him with silent, unhurried movements, and when the next trays of risen dough were in the oven, he started to load the cart to take to the market. Pearl wrapped a long swatch of brown cotton cloth around Gaia's torso, bulking up her waist and shoulders with padding. When Gaia slipped on the apprentice's blue shirt and pants, followed by a white baker s apron and a brown coat, Yvonne turned from her web of laundry line and giggled at her.

  "You look like Jet on a bad day," Yvonne said. "Even the hair."

  "Thanks," Gaia said.

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  She took a couple of strides in the pants, getting used to the feel of them. Women in Wharfton wore pants occasion' ally, if their work called for it or the winter turned cold, but it wasn't common. Gaia hadn't worn leggings since she was a girl.

  "You have to walk with your legs apart, like this," Yvonne said. She demonstrated, giggling.

  Pearl had whipped together a quick, thin batter, and it hit the flat skillet with a hissing noise as she poured a super thin crepe.

  "Hat," Pearl said curtly, and Yvonne sprinted upstairs, returning shortly with a boy s deep-brimmed brown hat.

  Gaia twitched in her clothes, trying to get comfortable, and she watched Pearl lay two thin crepes to cool on a flat, clean towel. They were circular and light, with a flexibility and texture that were surprisingly like skin.

  "They're too pale for her," Leon said, pausing as he passed through the kitchen with an armload of baguettes.

  "What do you know? Get out of my way," Pearl said. "Go shave, why don't you?"

  Leon shot Gaia a quick look, almost a smile, and then he and Oliver and Mace were busy with preparing the cart. They kept opening and closing the front door of the shop as they normally did when loading up on market day, and the cool air brought goose bumps to Gaia's arms and neck.

  "Sit," Pearl said, pointing Gaia toward a stool directly in the light. She touched Gaia's chin, and Gaia obediently tipped her face upward, closing her eyes. She felt cool dabs of a pasty substance being applied to the scarred skin of her left cheek, and she was amazed by the firm tenderness of Pearl's touch. Next she felt a cool, damp, suffocating fabric cover her entire face, and she had to fight back an instinctive fear. An instant later, the right side was lifted away, and Gaia realized Pearl

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  had laid one of the crepes on her face and bisected it down her nose. With her eyelids still closed, Gaia was intensely aware of Pearl working closely over her face. She could feel the woman's breath against her neck, and sometimes her ear, and s
he could hear a faint clicking noise Pearl made in the back of her throat as she concentrated.

  Next there was a brush of powder that Gaia felt distinctly on her right cheek and forehead, but as only the faintest pres' sure on her left side. Pearl made a dissatisfied sound, and Gaia heard her turning back to her flour and spices. A moment later, Gaia felt more brushing, and Pearl blew sharply on her face so that Gaia winced.

  "It's awful," Yvonne said, and Gaia's eyes shot open in alarm.

  Yvonne was grinning at her, and Pearl, inches away, was frowning as she touched the mask like new skin on Gaia's left check.

  "Well, it's obviously a speed job," Pearl said. "But it will do, if you keep a hat on and they don't look too closely." She sat back on the opposite stool, and Gaia cautiously sat upright. She kept expecting the crepe to fall off her skin, it was so lightly applied. Yvonne passed her a mirror, and with bright eyes, she watched Gaia over the rim of the glass.

  Gaia looked at a young boy in the mirror, a tanned, round' faced boy with long lashes, pale lips, and a broad forehead. There was an awkwardness to his nose, as if he'd had it broken once, and there were faint shadows under his eyes, as if he hadn't been sleeping well. As she peered more closely, Gaia saw the seam edge of the crepe where it started on her chin, ran around the left perimeter of her lips, up her nose, under her left eye, and all across the top of her eyebrows to her right temple. Her own brown eyes peered out from between black lashes. She reached up gingerly, but Pearl stopped her hand.

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  "It's fragile," she said. "Don't touch it. And don't try to smile or it will buckle around your mouth."

  "It's amazing," Gaia said, and saw in the mirror that her left cheek looked odd when she spoke. She would have to avoid talking, too, as much as she could.

  "Well," Pearl said with a modest cough. "I think making you a little darker was a good idea. Here. Put some on your hands, too. And settle your hat on. Yvonne, is that rope ready?"

 
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