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Birthmarked, p.30
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       Birthmarked, p.30

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  "Oh, no," Gaia breathed. It would be only a matter of seconds before the baby let out a louder, more peremptory call, and then the other babies would start waking. "I have to find formula," she said.

  "I'll be right there."

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  Gaia was already running toward the kitchen as another, louder wail came from up above. As soon as Gaia stepped back into the kitchen, she saw that Rosa had moved closer to the gray stone fireplace. She had her legs curled for leverage and was trying to roll over so that she'd be able to rise. The red material of her dress was bunched awkwardly around her knees.

  "Don't move," Gaia said.

  Rosa turned her face in Gaia's direction. Her black hair fell half across her face, and a strand of it stuck in the corner of her mouth. "You have to let me go," she said, her voice still a clear soprano. "I have to take care of the babies."

  The infant in the crib on the counter was waving one hand and making a gurgling, playful noise. Another cry came from above and was joined by a second baby voice.

  "Where's the formula?" Gaia demanded, scanning the kitchen for likely containers. One wall was lined with cupboards and closets. She set the basket and Maya on the center table and began opening doors as fast as she could. The first cupboard held adult food, the second dishes, and the third was stacked with lidded clay canisters. Gaia pulled one out and lifted the lid with a sucking sound: cream-colored powder.

  "Don't take that," Rosa said. "We need it."

  Gaia dipped her pinky finger into the powder and tasted it, then grabbed one of the canisters and put it in the basket. Taking three of the bottles from by the sink, she filled them with water and twisted on the nipple tops as more cries came from upstairs.

  "Leon!" she yelled, tucking the bottles into the basket with the baby blankets. She picked up her sister again and gripped the handles of the bulging basket. "Is there a list of the babies' birth dates?" she asked. "A record anywhere?"

  Rosa let out a laugh. "You think I'd give it to you? You know they're going to catch you," she said, shifting again,

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  inching her body toward the fireplace. "And they'll hang you right in the Bastion Square while I watch."

  "Leon!" Gaia called again. She couldn't tell what distressed her more, the increasingly urgent wails of the babies upstairs or the sinister predictions in this girl's clear, high pitched voice.

  He appeared in the doorway. "I can't find anything," he said. "It must all be restricted." He reached into one of the closets and pulled out a couple of red cloaks. "Take this."

  "She knows where there's a list," Gaia said. "She won't tell me."

  For a moment Leon looked into Gaia's eyes, as if weighing something important. Do it, Gaia thought. Do whatever you need to.

  "You'll never get outside the wall," Rosa piped from the floor. "They'll have people watching out every window and guards everywhere."

  Leon slipped a cloak around Gaia's shoulders, and she hunched into the warm, soft material. Then he dropped the other cloak on the table and reached for the handle of a knife that pretruded from a block of wood. Its sharp, short, serrated blade gleamed blue in the light from the rainy window. As the cries from upstairs grew desperate, he took a step nearer to Rosa, still bound on the floor. He aimed the knife in Rosa's direction.

  "You wouldn't," she said. Her eyes rounded with fear.

  Leon flipped the knife once in his hand catching it deftly. "Where's the list?" he said.

  Gaia sucked in her breath, biting her lip. Rosa was pushing back from him as much as she possibly could. Her voice lifted even higher in alarm.

  "I don't know!" she said. "I really don't!"

  The baby on the counter began to cry, adding a grating, discordant counterpoint to Rosa's pleading.

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  Leon took another step toward her and stooped to touch the point of the blade to the middle of her throat.

  Gaia clutched her sister, terrified of how far Leon might go.

  "Tell me," he said, his voice low and unflinching. "And I don't mean in the computer. A written record. I know Masister Khol would have a backup."

  The blade stroked downward along the skin.

  Rosa let out a gasp of fear. "Don't hurt me! Check the bottom drawer of the big cabinet. By the far wall," Rosa said. "I swear there are some ledgers. The bottom right drawer. Go look! Please!"

  Leon glanced up at Gaia and nodded.

  Gaia set her sister and the basket back on the table again and flew into the office. She wrenched open the lowest drawer of the biggest cabinet and there was a pile of thin ledgers. She flipped rapidly through the covers, seeing each book spanned five years, and a quick glance showed her there were names and birth dates inside in precise, small script. She swept the entire pile into her arms.

  By the time she returned to the kitchen, Rosa had tears in her eyes. Leon hadn't moved a millimeter.

  "They're here," Gaia said. "Leon. I've got them. Let her go."

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  Chapter 26 White Boots

  H IS COLD, steely eyes yielded nothing, but he turned the cusp of the blade away from Rosa's throat. She burst out a sob as Leon straightened to his full height. From the crib on the counter, the baby's cries subsided into a hiccupping, lonely noise, while the other babies upstairs continued to cry.

  "You're a monster," Rosa said, half choking on her words. "A freak. Just like they've always said."

  He tossed the knife on the floor. It landed just behind Rosa's tied wrists, where she would be able to reach it and work herself free.

  "Come on," he said to Gaia, grabbing the handles of the basket and tossing the other red cape over his shoulders. He opened the back door, and she teetered with him for a moment on the doorsill, facing the cold rain. She shivered once, hard, all through her body and gazed up at Leon's unrecognisable face. How completely he'd changed, how ruthless he'd become during those moments he'd held Rosa at knife point. How much of that had been genuinely him, and how much of that had been him acting as Gaia's tool? She had to accept that some of the responsibility was hers, and she didn't like it.

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  "You ready?" he asked, and she was relieved to hear his voice had lost its merciless edge.

  She nodded. He took the ledgers from her and pushed them into the basket. With a twitch, he settled the hood of his cloak around his face, and the contrasting red made his cheeks seem even paler.

  "You'll never look like a girl," she said.

  He gave the faintest hint of a smile. "This way," he said, and led her around the building.

  The rain was lessening, and with the dry red cloak around her, she no longer felt every raindrop pounding along her head and shoulders. She tucked Maya under the fabric, and hugged her close to her side.

  "Where are we heading?" she said.

  "To Mace Jackson s. Do you have a better idea?"

  She didn't. But when they reached the turn for the street with the bakery, a group of soldiers stood at the corner, and Gaia stopped in alarm.

  "Hey!" a soldier called.

  "Quick! This way," Leon said, pulling her back with him. They ran down an alley, and then he pushed her through a narrow door into a garden. She flew past the sodden vegetables and into another little yard and out another gate. A staircase curved up the side of a building, and Leon took her hand to lead her up. At the top, a flat roof was covered with laundry lines, all bare now, and they ran to the other side. A cistern was full and overflowing with rainwater, and behind it a plank utility bridge accompanied a water main that crossed to an' other roof.

  "Can you make this?" he asked.

  Compared to the run over the top of the solarium, this was nothing, and Gaia held out her hand. They were across to the next roof in a flash.

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  Gaia caught a glimpse of the obelisk and the Bastion towers, but then she and Leon turned down another staircase, and Gaia was back at street level, in another alley. They paused, looking for soldiers, and then they dashed across the road and u
p a lane. Leon stopped against a familiar metalwork gate.

  He thrust his arm inside, and at that moment, Gaia recognized the walled garden where she and Leon had stopped once before.

  "We can t," she said. "It's a dead end. A death trap."

  "We have no other choice. We have to hide somewhere while we come up with a plan."

  He shoved the gate opened, and she flew in behind him. The wet gate closed with a click, and she looked fearfully toward the house. Gray, blank windows merged with the rain-soaked stucco, and she looked to Leon, surprised. "They're gone?"

  "They must be at my sister's birthday party," he said. He started toward the terrace, but Gaia shrank back.

  "No, Leon. We can't go in there."

  "We need shelter, Gaia. We have to figure something out."

  She backed away, shaking her head. "Let's hide out here, in the garden, just until we can figure out a way to get out of the wall." She sniffed as a big drop of rain fell against her lashes, and then she wiped it away.

  "If you insist," he said. "At least it should be dryer under the tree. Come on."

  She barely recognized the garden as he led her toward the back, toward the big pine tree. Light from a streetlamp flooded over the wall in one place, illuminating the wild cascades of rain, and the pummeling effect of the rain on the bushes and flowers, but otherwise the garden was a maze of drenched shadows. A gust of wind blasted into her face, stealing her breath, and she leaned into it.

  "Here!" he said, and she squinted into the gloom. They had

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  reached the giant pine and the deep, dry shadow beneath. She had to hunch to move beneath the lowest, sloping branches.

  Maya let out a cry, and with her open mouth, the infant rubbed her cheek against her towel, rooting instinctively for food. Gaia wiped her finger on the wet fabric of her cloak and put her littlest finger upside down in the baby's mouth. It was a trick shed learned from her mother, but it was still startling how hard the baby could suck.

  "She needs a bottle," Gaia said.

  "We don't have time."

  "I can't exactly take a crying baby down the street."

  He frowned toward little Maya and the finger Gaia had in her mouth. "What do I do?"

  Gaia told him to dig out one of the bottles of water and explained about adding the powdered formula and shaking the bottle to mix it.

  To her left, a sheet of gray rain marked the edge of the cliff, and she could just make out the blurred buildings below. With Maya in her arms, she huddled to the ground. A few streams of rainwater ran through the dead, fragrant pine needles. When Leon handed her the bottle, she nudged it into Maya's lips, and the baby latched on vigorously.

  "Hungry little monster," Gaia said softly. She licked the rainwater from her lips.

  He was sitting on his haunches beside her. "Did you notice the guards didn't take any shots at us back there?" he asked. "We were in range. I wonder if they have orders to capture us, not kill us. The Protectorat was willing to have us executed when he could do it quietly, but he might not want us gunned down in public."

  She glanced up from the baby to find Leon's face near enough for her to see the individual drops along his cheek' bones. "That's good then, isn't it?"

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  He squinted at her, nodding. "Yes. But they'll have guards combing every corner of the Enclave and all around the wall, too."

  She thought this over and shivered.

  He moved nearer and put an arm around her shoulders. "Gold?"

  "Not so bad."

  He gave her shoulder a squeeze and then pulled her a bit nearer so that she could feel the warmth of his torso along her arm through the wet cloak.

  "I think we might have a better chance if we split up," he said.

  "What?"

  "They're looking for the two of us together. If you just go yourself, right up to the south gate, like you have business outside the wall, you might be able to get close enough and then run."

  She blinked over at him. "You've lost your mind."

  "What do you think we should do, then?"

  Gaia didn't know. She wished there was a crowd. If they could get lost in a crowd, they might stand a chance. Maya was almost done with her bottle, and her eyes were closed as if she would slip right into sleep. "I don't know," Gaia said. "Isn't there any other way out of the wall?" She remembered the way she'd come in originally, and the guard tower just above it. That would be no good. "Didn't you say you got in by the solar grid plant?"

  "That's clear on the other side of the Enclave. We'd never get that far."

  "So there's no way out."

  "Aside from blasting open our own hole, no."

  "How about where the wall meets the cliff? Could we go down the cliff?"

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  "Not unless you have a-- I don't believe this. Where's your rope?"

  She let out a laugh. "I left it in the Bastion. With my mother."

  "It wouldn't work anyway," he said. "There are guard towers along the cliff, too."

  Gaia lifted her face as the rain lightened even further, and gazed out toward the cliff, to where she would see the unlake if the rain and the darkness didn't obscure it. Night was falling, and the gleams of streetlamps shone below. "So, we're stuck," she said. "Do you still have the ledgers?"

  "They're right here," he said.

  She gazed at the hastily assembled basket of supplies, realizing she might never have the chance to use them all, few as they were. It was almost funny, in a way, to feel so safe for an instant while guards must be closing in on them from every direction. Something slowed down inside her and grew peaceful, as if she'd accepted a great boulder.

  "I would have liked to get the list outside," she said. "To the people in Wharfton. They have a right to know what happened to their babies."

  "Gaia. You sound like you're giving up."

  It didn't feel like that to her. It felt like she was facing her future realistically. She just hoped they could be killed quickly and not have to go through a scene in the Square of the Bastion with a formal execution. She wouldn't like that. "It's just reality, Leon. There's no way out. The only one who could get us outside the wall tonight would be the Protectorat himself, or maybe Genevieve. And I don't think they'd want to leave Evelyn's birthday to offer us an escort," she added wryly.

  Leon loosened his arm from around her and stood. "Incredible," he muttered.

  "What?"

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  "We've been thinking like fugitives. We need to think like royalty."

  "I beg your pardon?"

  "Stay here," he said.

  "You're not leaving me!" she said.

  He crouched beside her again and gripped her shoulders. "Listen," he said. "It's the night of my sister's party, right? The wealthiest people from the Enclave are out tonight, heading toward the Bastion. The guards are looking for us in red, desperate and soaked. All we need to do is dress in white, Gaia. We just have to act like we're part of the guest list. Guards would never stop a couple in white."

  The peaceful boulder began to break up around her heart, letting hope in again, and with it fear.

  "But what about the baby? What about my face?"

  Leon stood and helped her to her feet. "It will all work out," he said. "Gome on."

  She gathered her sleeping sister more closely in her arms as he lifted the basket of supplies, and then they were hurrying through the garden toward the house. The rain had lessened to a drizzle, and a roll of thunder was more distant. Even though she knew that the house was lightless and empty, it still frightened her to creep up onto the terrace. With a stone, Leon made a sharp tap against one of the windows of a French door to break the glass. A moment later, he had the door open and they were inside. It was hard to see more than the forms of furniture and the openings of doorways, but Leon seemed to know his way, and she followed him up the stairs to a bed' room.

  "How do you know this place?" she asked.

  "One of my friends from school lives
here. Tim Quirk. His family is friends with my family. I've been here a hundred times, though not lately." He was closing the curtains, blocking

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  out the last bit of light, and a moment later she heard a click as he pulled a light switch in the closet. Gaia was afraid to touch anything, especially once she saw that everything in the closet was white with only the slightest other pastel shades for accents. There were special shelves for hats, and a dozen compartments just for shoes.

  "Here," Leon said. "Pick something out. I'll get something from Tim's room."

  "I don't have the least idea what to wear," Gaia said.

  He turned to her, frowning, and she could just imagine the picture she made, dripping wet, in the red cape and with a baby rolled in blankets in her arms. Her hair was wet and probably messed, and under a layer of mud, she still wore Jet's bloodstained trousers and her improvised sheet skirt.

  "I wish we had time for showers," he muttered.

  She laughed. "Well, we don't. Let's not think that much like royalty."

  Leon turned again to the closet and whipped out a long, slender, creamy sweater with soft, narrow sleeves. Next he pulled out a white dress that would sweep below her knees. "The style's probably not right for a young girl like you, but it's all we have. Here's a cape. I don't think it's waterproof, but the rain's stopping, I think, and it has a good hood. Can you pick out some shoes?"

  "How about the boots?" she asked, pointing down at the row of boots, some tall, some ankle-high, all in spotless white.

  "Let's hope they fit," he said, and pulled out a pair of the low ones. They reminded Gaia of cowboy boots from the Tvaltar, but shorter, dainty.

  "Okay," she whispered, and let her red cape fall to the floor.

  She couldn't wait to get out of her snug, water-soaked clothes. She set the sleeping baby on top of the bundle. As she reached for the dress, she looked over her shoulder to see if

 
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