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Birthmarked, p.25
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       Birthmarked, p.25

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  Pearl made Gaia take her coat off again, and stuffed the rope and an extra cloak of Pearl's for Gaia's mother into the back of Gaia's shirt. When Gaia's brown coat was on again, she looked even more like a round young boy who had just started his growth spurt. Pearl shook her head. "Your hands are all wrong," she said. "Too slender."

  Just then Mace yelled from the doorway to the shop. "Pearl!" he called. "We're going to set up at the market. Where's my apprentice?"

  Gaia's heart froze with fear for one instant, and then Pearl gave her fingers a quick, hard squeeze. She drew her to the front doorway.

  "We'll be waiting for you here," Pearl whispered. Yvonne came forward for a hug, but Pearl held her back. "No, don't mess her," Pearl said in warning. "Take these," she said to Gaia. She thrust three little white cubes into Gaia's palm.

  "Sugar?" Gaia asked, puzzled, stepping out and holding them toward the moonlight on her open palm. They were smaller and denser than sugar cubes, and Gaia looked back at Pearl curiously.

  "They're not sugar. They're for sleep and pain. They work fast and they're powerful, so be careful."

  Gaia slid them into the right pocket of her trousers, her mind racing to anticipate how they might be useful. "What are they? Are they for the prisoner in the tower? For Masister Khol?"


  "Yes," she said. "Or for you, if-- Well, you can use your judgment."

  Yvonne's young face was a pale blue in the shadowed door way. "They're all we have left over from Lila," she explained.

  "Oh," Gaia said softly. She searched Pearl's face, unsure if she should take them.

  "Go," Pearl urged her. "We don't need them." The older woman squinted toward where Mace and Leon, now dressed in Oliver's clothes, were waiting with a cart in the narrow lane. Oliver was out of sight.

  Gaia spared one last glance for Pearl and Yvonne, who gave a little wave and a big smile, and then she hurried after the cart like a late, contrite apprentice.


  Chapter 22 The Women of the Southeast Tower

  THE MONUMENT LOOMED over the Square of the Bastion, a heavy, black presence against the predawn violet of the sky. Gaia's ears were full of the rattle of the cart as its broad wheels traversed the damp cobblestones, and beside her Leon's breath came in a steady rhythm as he and Mace pulled the cart toward the southeast tower. That was their goal: to be the cart nearest the tower when Masister Khol chanced by and needed a boy, any convenient, trustworthy boy, to carry her load up the tower steps. Gaia palmed the crown of her hat to push it down more steadily on her head, glancing forward under the brim. In her pocket, her fingertips curled around the small cubes of white powder Pearl had given her.

  In a corner of the square, two guards stood by the great wooden door to the southeast tower of the Bastion. Gaia tried not to look at them. On the opposite side of the square was the familiar arch to the prison, and she avoided looking at that, too, hoping she'd never enter there again.

  There were a few other carts already in the square, and more were arriving for market day: a vegetable vendor, a poultry


  farmer with eggs and clucking chickens for sale, the clock-maker who occasionally brought his wares outside to Wharfton and now set up a small stand beside the base of the monument. Later the colors and smells would be vibrant, but now, in the gray light, even the copper bottoms of the pots were the soft, indistinct color of ash. Gaia kept her head down and helped Mace.

  "When do you think Masister Khol will come?" she asked.

  "I don't know. But were in a good place for when she does. Remember, bring your mother back down to us quietly," Mace said, reviewing the plan they'd finally agreed upon. "If you can walk out naturally, she can sit here in Pearl's cloak, under the sun shade, as if she were one of us. Then we'll leave all together in an unhurried way."

  "What if the guards notice?" Gaia whispered. "Which way do we run?"

  "That way," Mace said, nodding over his shoulder. "Through the market, and cut over to the arcade and through the candle shop. They have a back door. Is your mother a fast runner?"

  Gaia remembered her mother's gentle, steady manner and her graceful, unhurried movements in her brown skirts and dresses. She was a thickset woman nearing forty, strong and fit, or at least, she had been before her arrest. "If she has to be. For a short distance," Gaia said tensely.

  Mace smiled, passing her a pair of loaves to arrange. "Then let's hope the guards notice nothing unusual. Remember, there are other doors into the tower from inside the Bastion, which people use regularly, coming and going, so having an extra woman come out should be okay. Be ready."

  The square gradually filled with more vendors. The sun topped the buildings to the east, and as the morning hours progressed, it slowly shrank the line of shadow until the entire square was in the full sunlight of noon and the scorching July


  heat. Mace had her help set up two awnings, one for customers in front of the cart and one for them behind. Cicadas started up their slow, whining song of heat. Several times people came out of the door at the base of the tower, passing the guards, but no one went in.

  Gaia was afraid every moment that someone would come along and notice her or Leon, but they stayed at the back of the stand and Mace handled the steady stream of slow moving, heat soaked customers. Gaia grew almost sick with the alternating anticipation and disappointment every time she saw some' one who looked like Masister Khol.

  "She wasn't lying, was she?" Gaia asked Leon. "It must be noon now, and she did say she'd come this morning, didn't she?"

  He had shaved, and his blue shirt made his eyes seem lighter than she was used to, even in the shade of Oliver's borrowed hat. "She's a busy person, but she'll come. She has her own twisted kind of honor."

  Mace wiped sweat from his forehead. "I'm almost out of bread anyway. If she doesn't come soon, we'll have to go back. This is already longer than I usually stay."

  Finally, across the square, Masister Khol's white figure was visible, walking awkwardly as she carried a round, lidded basket. Gaia was so relieved she could have run to her with tears of gratitude. Masister Khol stopped a few feet from the door of the southeast tower, and set the basket down. With one hand poised at her back, she frowned toward the square. Gaia felt an itch in the back of neck, waiting by Mace's cart. The guards straightened to imposing posture.

  "I'm here to check on the prisoner in the tower," Masister Khol said.

  One of the guards stepped forward. "What do you have there in the basket?"


  Masister shoved it forward a pace. "A gun and a few knives," she said sarcastically.

  The guard laughed, and lifted the lid. "Sunflower seeds and potatoes? What kind of diet is that?"

  "It's not a whole diet," Masister Khol said disdainfully. "It's a supplement. She needs more vitamin B6."

  He shook his head. "It's always something. When's the baby due?"

  "Not for another month," Masister Khol said. "Listen. Do you want to carry this up for me?"

  He shook his head, and so did the other guard. "Orders," the first one said apologetically.

  Masister Khol put a hand on her hip and turned in irritation toward the square. Gaia had been listening avidly to the exchange, and now she nearly jumped out of her shoes when Masister Khol addressed her.

  "You, there!" Masister Khol said.

  Gaia looked up, and then, trying to look natural, she glanced at Mace. Around them, the normal hubbub of the market continued.

  "Yes, you, boy," Masister said. "Come here and carry this basket for me."

  Gaia set down a loaf of bread. Her fingertips tingled with nervousness.

  "Leave your apron and hurry along," Mace said to her. "Don't make Masister wait for you."

  Gaia untied her baker's apron, threw it to Leon, and made her strides longer as she went to pick up the basket. She had to lean her body away to balance the weight.

  The guards laughed.

  "That will put a bit of
meat on you, boy," the guard said. "Along you go, then," he said, opening the door for Masister Khol. The guard bopped Gaia's hat brim down lower on her


  forehead as she went past, and laughed again. Gaia had a moment of terror, feeling the mask on her forehead press oddly, but then she tried to react as a boy might. She jerked the hat back up, and shot the guard an annoyed look.

  "That's the way," the guard said, his voice teasing but not unfriendly.

  Her disguise had worked. Secretly delighted, Gaia hurried after Masister Khol, hauling up the basket. The steps spiraled upward in a clockwise fashion, with walls of stone on each side and with oblong windows in the outer wall every dozen steps. She passed several landings with closed doors, as well. The basket grew heavier with each step, but Gaia hitched it up her arm and kept going until her heart was pounding. Her breath came in gasps. The thought that every step was bringing her closer to her mother drove her upward, even as her leg muscles burned. She kept her eyes on the back of Masister s white skirt and the heels of her scuffing, black-soled shoes as she ascended the steps right in front of her. Just when Gaia thought she could go no farther, they reached a triangular landing and Masister Khol stopped.

  Masister Khol paused to catch her breath, saying nothing, and a moment later she slid aside a little panel on the door and spoke through the opening.

  "It's Masister Khol,'" she said. "We're coming in."

  Gaia watched her pull one heavy iron bolt to the left, and the door swung outward.

  They were in the tower at last. Gaia's heart lifted with anticipation. My mother! Which one is my mother? She glanced first at a woman who sat in a rocking chair. Persephone Frank, with her distinctive moon-shaped face and brown hair, lowered her knitting and looked up casually at Gaia. Gaia was shocked to find her there. Weeks ago, Leon had told her that Sephie was free and back home, practicing medicine. Yet here she was.


  Either Leon had lied, or Sephie had chosen to serve the Enclave as a watchdog. Sephie drew her splayed fingers along her yarn to loosen it and resumed knitting.

  Gaia s gaze flew to a second woman, who was lying on the farthest cot with a thin blanket covering her. The unfamiliar woman was sitting up slowly, one hand in a magazine, and her long brown hair slipped over her shoulder in a messy braid. She was a rotund young woman with heavy-lidded eyes, and not what Gaia expected in a political prisoner.

  "Who is it?" the woman murmured.

  "It's Masister Khol, you slugabed," Sephie said. "See if you can't make yourself presentable."

  When the third woman, on the nearest cot, did not bother to roll over to see who had come in, Gaia s heart ticked faster with fear. Gaia set down her basket and stood by the door, afraid to do or say the wrong thing. With a quick glance upward, she located the tiny white box that matched the one shed had in her Bastion room earlier, and she knew it was the surveillance camera. It was more than probable that Mabrother Iris or one of his assistants was watching the room closely. She inwardly groaned.

  "Come now, Bonnie," Masister Khol said, and her voice cajoling, almost tender. "See the sunflower seeds I found for you. When s the last time you ate a sunflower seed?"

  The form on the bed did not move. "I'm not hungry."

  Gaia's heart leaped at the familiar voice, and it was all she could do not to rush over to her mother.

  Then, as Masister Khol urged the prisoner gently to sit up, Gaia saw something she could not believe: under her blue dress, her mothers belly was swollen with the round, expansive bulge of pregnancy. Gaia inhaled sharply. It could not be. Or could it? The truth hammered home: her mother was not the attending midwife here. Her mother was the political prisoner. Impossible


  as it seemed, Gaia's mother must have been nearly five months pregnant when Gaia last saw her outside the wall, without Gaia knowing. A tiny, left-out voice at the back of her mind wondered why her mother hadn't told her, and then empathy rose in Gaia to wipe out everything else. She took an involuntary step toward her before she could stop herself.

  Gaia's mother lifted tired, apathetic eyes in Gaia's direction, and Gaia was shocked by the other changes in her. Her once vibrant, sunny mother looked exhausted and totally disheartened. Her arms, formerly strong and agile, were thin and bony. Her cheeks and lips were the same colorless hue, and deep rings underscored her lackluster eyes. Her long braid was gone, and instead her limp hair grew in straggly clumps to her neck. It seemed all the life had been drained out of her body and con' centrated into her belly to keep her child surviving, leaving only a shell of the mother behind.

  "Who is this?" Gaia's mother asked in a dead voice.

  "A boy from the market," Masister Khol said.

  Gaia s mother looked vacantly away, and Gaia ached for her.

  "Come along now," Masister Khol said. "We need a urine sample."

  "We don't need anything." Gaia's mother turned to lie down again.

  "No," Masister Khol said, quickly catching her. Sephie rose to help Masister Khol, and between the two of them, they brought Gaia s mother tottering to her feet. Sephie guided her feet into two brown slippers.

  "It will just take a minute," Sephie said in a low voice. "Really now, Bonnie. You must. For the baby."

  Bonnie's lips came tightly together, and she allowed Sephie to lead her into a little side room while Masister Khol hovered behind.

  The awful truth hit Gaia again: her mother was pregnant.


  And terribly weak. How on earth was Gaia going to help her escape?

  "All set, Bonnie?" Masister Khol asked.

  Gaia tried to think why Masister Khol hadn't mentioned that her mother was pregnant, and then she realized Masister Khol would have assumed Gaia already knew.

  "Let's give her a little privacy," Sephie answered. She closed the door as she came out, then resumed her seat in the rocker by the fireplace and took up her knitting. Her needles made a pleasant clicking in the little space, and as Gaia looked around the room for other ideas, she realized what an unusual cell it was. The room was almost comfortable. The curved walls were made of dark stone, but a small fire for cooking glowed at the back of the fireplace, and a soft, rose patterned carpet covered the floor. White curtains hung in three windows, framing the bright afternoon sky, and a cupboard held cooking gear and a few books. Above, from the apex of the conical, wooden rafters, a ceiling fan hung down and turned quietly, curving patiently into the air to stir it upward.

  Sephie reached for a kettle that hung near the fire. "Care for a cup of tea before you go, Joyce?" she asked.

  Masister Khol was rummaging through the basket Gaia had carried, and now she triumphantly lifted a little black tin and shook it. "I had a feeling you d ask," she said. "It's a nice blend with a hint of vanilla in it."

  The other woman smiled and pushed her hair back. "You're a miracle."

  While Sephie slid off the lid of the teapot and took the tin from Masister Khol to shake some tea inside, Masister Khol turned to the third woman.

  "How have you been, Julia?" Masister Khol asked.

  "I've had better jobs. This is a bore, mostly," Julia said. She was rebraiding her hair with deft fingers. "I thought she


  was supposed to be a danger to herself and everyone around her."

  Sephie's eyebrows lifted once in what Gaia guessed was dismissive contempt for Julia. Sephie was laying out three cups and saucers before the fire when she looked again at Gaia, and her gaze narrowed suddenly.

  "You, there," Sephie said.

  Gaia's heart stopped. "Yes, Masister?" She kept her voice low.

  Sephie frowned at her and Gaia waited anxiously She steeled herself to keep her gaze steady on the older doctor, and when Sephie silently angled her face to her left, Gaia resisted the urge to mirror her motion.

  Sephie's eyebrows lifted, she winced briefly, and then she made a clicking noise in the back of her throat. "I had a helpful assistant once," she said lightly. Then h
er voice changed. "Make yourself useful, boy," Sephie said as she poured. "Pass these around. And then you should go."

  Gaia's heart slammed on again in double time. Sephie must recognize her, but she wasn't initiating any alarm. Why not? Gaia suddenly remembered what Cotty had once said about Sephie: she did whatever was easiest. But what would be easiest for Sephie now, to raise the alarm against Gaia, or to wait and see what evolved? Gaia didn't know. She fingered the small white cubes in her pocket, wondering how quickly they would dissolve in hot water and, more importantly, how quickly they would work.

  "You heard her," Masister said sharply. "Don't stand there like an idiot. Are you deaf?"

  "He probably wants some sunflower seeds," Julia said, giggling. "I know I do."

  The bathroom door started to open. "Wait, Bonnie," Sephie said, rising from beside the fire. "Let me help you."

  When Sephie reentered the bathroom, Gaia knew she


  couldn't delay. Stepping near the fire, she picked up the first cup and surreptitiously dropped a white cube of powder inside. She handed this to Julia, and then repeated the maneuver for Masister Khol. As her mother reappeared, supported by Sepbie, Gaia turned her back to the camera and dropped the third cube into the last cup of tea.

  Gaia s mother looked more exhausted than ever, and she sat on the edge of the nearest bed, her hands gripping the edge of the mattress as if to keep her balance. Gaia came forward hesitantly, holding Sepbie s teacup. When her mother reached for it, Gaia froze, withholding the cup until her mother looked up, questioning.

  "No, Bonnie," Sephie said, taking the cup from Gaia s tight, trembling fingers. "The last thing you need right now is a diuretic."

  Gaia almost laughed with relief.

  Her mother was watching Gaia in a pulled manner. "Do I know you?" she asked her daughter.

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