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       Birthmarked, p.5

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  He angled his face a little nearer, and it was the sad curve of a faint smile that finally convinced her he must be telling the truth. "It doesn't work that way," he said.

  She fought against the oncoming -wave of horror. "There must be something I can do," she said.

  "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "Your parents were two of the finest people I ever knew."


  "Don't talk about them like that!" she said. "Like they're already dead. Please, if you have contacts inside the wall, you must have a way to do something. Can 't we get in?"

  He wiped his hands slowly on his white apron, hesitating. "It's too dangerous," he said. "No one goes in."

  "There has to be a way," Gaia pressed. Her nightmares were nothing compared to this. She was suddenly furious with herself for her weeks of docile inactivity. She should have been doing something. She should have been protesting somehow. Instead she'd been serving the Enclave like a stupid little slave! She grabbed her hat off her head and ran a hand back through her hair, thinking rapidly. If the Enclave could execute innocent people like her own parents, then she no longer owed it her loyalty.

  If there was a chance, any chance at all that she could do something to save them, she would do it. She could go to the gate and demand to see Mabrother Iris as Sgt. Grey had instructed, and give him the parcel Old Meg had given her. Mabrother Iris was second only to the Protectorat, so the par' eel must be worth something. Even now Gaia had it tied around her leg under her skirt. She'd examined it and knew it contained a brown ribbon, closely embroidered with silk threads, but the pattern made no sense to her, just as the note in her pocket at that moment was a cypher. Then it dawned on her. That ribbon was almost certainly the list Sgt. Grey had been seeking.

  It was also what her mother wanted her to destroy.

  She leaned back against one of the counters, her mind spinning.

  "There must be a way through that wall," she said.

  Derek stroked a hand slowly down his mustache and into his beard. "Only the gate entrance is legal. Any other attempt to go inside is punishable by death."


  She approached nearer to him and seized upon her decision as surely as if she'd picked up one of his measuring cups. She had to see her parents. She had to get to them somehow. "I don't care about any punishment. I want you to help me get into the Enclave prison. Can you do that?"

  Derek's eyebrows lowered in visible alarm. "Do you realize what you re saying?"

  She no longer cared that she was talking like a traitor. "Please," she said. "I need to see my mother. There's something I need to give her that could save her life."

  "What is it?"

  She shook her head. "You joked that I might have a sweet' heart inside the wall. What if I told you it's true, and I need to see him? Forget my parents. Just help me get inside the wall. I'll do the rest myself."

  "I can't afford the risk."

  "I'll pay you," she said.

  He tilted his face slightly, then reached for a brown pile of dough and began to knead it, then roll it neatly into a long loaf. He set it on a floured cloth, then pinched the cloth to make a pucker for the next loaf. If he hadn't been frowning so intently, she would have thought he was ignoring her, but she was certain he was concentrating and the kneading helped him think.

  "Derek," Gaia said softly. "You said you had children of your own. I'm all my parents have. They're probably worried sick about me out here all alone. Wouldn't they want you to help me?"

  He shot her a glance and dropped the next loaf onto the cloth. "They'd want me to keep you safe," he said dryly.

  "But I want to be with them, too. They're all I have. You have to help me get in there."

  Gaia stood next to the table and glanced once more out the front door, toward the empty shop. The laughter of passing


  children came from the street, and a black fly buzzed in the sunlight.

  "It's not as simple as you might think, to rebel," Derek said. His hands worked the dough fluidly as he talked, and he never looked up at her. "Speaking hypothetically, of course. People have a way of disappearing when they talk too openly against the Enclave, for one thing. And then, many of our families have sons and brothers in the guard. We cant fight our own families. Many of us have children who were advanced inside, children who would be harmed if we attacked. How could any of us unite to fight against the Enclave, and for what?"

  He only convinced her she'd come to the right place. He'd obviously been thinking about rebelling a lot longer than she had.

  "Please, Derek," she said. "I've saved forty Tvaltar passes. I'll give you thirty if you help me get inside the wall."

  Derek laughed in open amusement. "Thirty passes!" he said. "It wouldn't be worth it for twice that much."

  Gaia pressed her fingers onto the wooden table, feeling the layer of flour. "I'll give you forty," she said. "All I have. And water for a week. You must help me."

  Derek eyed her curiously. "What do you think you'll accomplish getting inside the wall? In a matter of minutes, you'll be arrested. You can get arrested for free anytime you want. Just walk up to the gate and tell them you've been illegally concealing your mother's list."

  Gaia felt the warmth drain out of her face, and knew she was as pale as the flour covering the table. She swallowed thickly.

  Derek laughed again, pointing at her. "I was right, then. You've got a transparent face, child, despite that scar."

  "Who else knows?" she whispered, her cheeks burning.

  "No need to fret. There's a handful of us as have guessed


  she left some sort of list with you or Old Meg, though I wasn't sure until now. Other midwives have been approached with the same question," Derek said. "We've been wondering if you'd do something."

  "Who are these people?" Gaia said. Why had none of these people talked to her since her parents were arrested? Were they all so afraid?

  Derek's lips closed in a firm line, and her suspicions leaped into overdrive. He might just know a few gossipy friends, but it was possible, too, that some people might be finding each other, quietly questioning the right of the Enclave to dictate the rules that governed the people outside the wall. Maybe her parents had been part of such a conversation, and that was all it had taken to get them arrested. She wished she knew.

  "The quota's going up to five next month," Gaia said.

  "Is that so?" Derek said thoughtfully. He kneaded another loaf, his fingers moving adroitly over and around the dough. He pulled up another tray, and it landed on the table with a light, metallic bang.

  "Anybody there?" called a woman's voice from the front room.

  "Comin," Derek said. He gave Gaia a quick look, and she slid silently toward a corner, out of sight behind a black shelf of cans and boxes. He wiped his hands on his apron and turned, his massive shoulders briefly outlined as he slipped through the strands of the bead curtain.

  Gaia could hear a customer's voice and Derek's mellow re ply. She wasn't certain why she trusted Derek, but she did. He seemed to have more information than Theo Rupp's family, for starters, even if it was bad news. She was beginning to believe there were things her mother hadn't told her, either because her mother didn't trust Gaia, or she wanted to protect her with ignorance. Gaia had had enough of ignorance.


  She heard a final good-bye and a shuffle of feet, and then Derek came through the bead curtain once more. Gaia pushed slowly out of her corner hiding spot.

  "You re a little thing, aren't you?" Derek said.

  She stepped toward the table, deciding quickly. "Tonight," she said. "There's no time to lose."

  Derek frowned at her steadily for a long moment, and she straightened under his intense gaze. She would try with or without his help, but she would rather have him on her side. Finally he nodded. He returned his attention to his bread dough, and with a knife, he scored a short mark across the surface of each completed loaf.

  "At midnight," he
said. "Dress in red."

  Gaia gasped. Red was costly, conspicuous, and taboo for those who lived outside the 'wall. "Do you want me to stand out like a firecracker?" she demanded.

  He chuckled, barely looking up. "You don't know much, do you? Red. And bring the passes. You can leave the water behind your parents' house. I'll pick it up later."

  She nodded. "I'll leave it on the back porch."

  There was a noise from the front room again, a shuffling, expectant noise of another customer entering. Derek wiped his thick hands on his apron again and reached to an upper shelf. She saw him grab a small brown loaf of bread and when he tossed it, she caught it in both hands. "You've got yourself a sweetheart inside the wall, little Gaia," he said, grinning. "Now go."

  She let herself out the back door, stepping into the warm sunlight. She knew it was just his teasing way of saying the deal was on, but the word sweetheart grated on her. It didn't help that she'd never had one. She hadn't yet met a boy she'd been particularly attracted to, and of course no one could find her appealing. She had a flashing memory of Sgt. Grey's handsome


  jaw and mouth, and that irritated her even more. She had seen him only that one brief night, and in dim lighting. Yet his sym' metrical, shadowed face was etched clearly in her memory. No doubt has had his share of sweethearts already, she thought. Some girls would be attracted to his handsome face, even though he was dead cold within. Well, it wasn't any of her business.

  With the loaf of bread tucked against her side where Sonya's baby had been earlier that morning, she strode down the back streets of Wharfton, heading home, but already her mind was hours ahead of her, imagining her return up these streets and wondering how on earth she was going to find something red to wear. For the first time in weeks she had a purpose, and she could channel all the anxiety that had consumed her into a plan to infiltrate the Enclave.


  Chapter 5 Shepherd's Purse

  THE ANSWER TO THE RED turned out to be simple. She used dye from her fathers tailoring supplies, boiling it in a pot of water over the fire. She dropped in her brown skirt and a hooded white tunic she had worn a year earlier for the mid' summer festival, and watched them in the steaming water. The brown skirt turned a deep, sorrel red, while the white fabric threatened to stay pink. Gaia pushed the clothes around with a wooden spoon, feeling the steam on her face. Then she sat back and again pulled her mothers note out of her pocket.

  Destroy it. Destroy this. to to WZMMRL.

  The letters were in some code her mother expected her to recognize, obviously. She raised her head to listen for noise be-yond the stillness of her little house, but there was only the sound of the blacksmith in the distance, hammering on metal with a ringing rhythm, and the soft chirp of a bird in the back-yard as it hopped among the grasses and herbs of her mothers garden. Very softly, the creak of the water urn on its chain, hanging from the eve of the back porch, reminded her that her


  father was no longer there to lift the heavy urn when it was full. Nothing was right with her parents gone, no matter how much she'd tried to go on without them.

  It had taken losing them for her to realise just how exceptional her parents were. They'd built their little home with no more wealth than the other families on Sally Row, and yet their place had always been different, the drinking water a little cooler, the food a bit testier, the clothes beautifully sewn. Her father had a keen eye for beauty and function, not only in the tailoring of the clothes he made, but in the smallest layout of things in and around the house.

  When her mother had first started transplanting herbs to their backyard, they had withered in the fierce summer sun, but her father had designed trellises to filter the light, and he'd devised drainage and beaded condensation cisterns around the garden. He'd spread the soil with cut grasses to reduce evaporation and cut down on weeds. They'd caught rain from the house roof in a rain barrel, the rain from the chicken coop in another, and when these ran dry, he used the rinse water from their bathing and laundry to water the garden. It wasn't a perfect system. One summer they'd lost nearly every herb. Yet often their garden flourished, and they had herbs to share with their neighbors. He'd even transplanted a willow to the back of the yard as a playhouse for Gaia and a source of bark for her mother's medicinal teas.

  She remembered the first time she'd gathered shepherd's purse with her mother, long ago, the summer she was nine. Grasshoppers hidden in the dry grass had flown up against Gaia's skirt, and she'd held the fabric close against her legs to keep them from jumping up under it. She'd turned to look behind her and was surprised by how Wharfton and the Enclave looked from that angle. They looked so small, like a town with a hill and a castle she might have built with stones on the


  beach. Beyond the wall, she could see the towers of the Bastion and the top half of a great obelisk, no larger than her out' stretched thumb.

  "Gaia, keep up with me," her mother called.

  Gaia looked ahead to see that her mother was nearly out of sight down the path that wound down into the unlake. Another grasshopper leaped, landing on her hand, and she whisked it off as she ran to follow. Where the route circumvented large boulders, the packed path was cool under her bare feet, but most of the way lay in bright sunlight, and she felt like everything prickled-- the bit of grit between her toes, the grasshoppers flecking at her hem, the itch of heat behind her ears.

  The unlake dipped lower into a dry bay of great, rounded stones, and she came upon her mother. This was the natural amphitheater where Gaia and Emily often played Rapunsel, taking turns as the witch and the princess. But lately Sasha had been inviting Emily to play, and not including Gaia. Loss hid in the shadow of each familiar stone.

  "There you are at last, dreamer," her mother said. "Look here. I want you to see this, where it's likely to grow. See these broad, soft leaves, almost furry?"

  Gaia couldn't see how one plant was much different from the others around her. She put her hands in the pockets of her dress and twisted the material there, making it bunch around her legs. She expected that Emily would be gone again to Sasha's today.

  "Gaia. Pay attention. This matters," her mother said.

  Gaia didn't know what she was doing wrong. She didn't know why her mother was being sharp with her. All she knew was that Emily should be there with her. Gaia let her head hang and hot mist filled her eyes.

  "Hey," her mother said softly. She held out a hand. Gaia couldn't move.


  "It's those girls, isn't it?" her mother said.

  "I miss Emily," Gaia whispered.

  "Sit here," her mother said gently. "Right next to me."

  Gaia checked carefully that no grasshoppers were jumping in the area, and then she sat on her haunches, keeping the skirt of her dress wrapped tightly around her legs. She wiped at her eyes.

  "Here's the thing about friends," her mother said. "Sasha I'm not so sure about, but Emily, she'll come back around to you."

  "How can you tell?"

  "I just can. It's something about depth in a person. Now, look closely." Her mother began again, more patiently. And now, as if she were seeing an entirely new plant, Gaia

  inspected the pale green leaves and stems. Her mother dug the plant out carefully, and Gaia saw the spidery fineness of the roots.

  "What's it for?" Gaia had asked. Her throat didn't feel as tight anymore. She sniffed.

  "There's my girl," her mother said. "It helps stop bleeding. It helps a mother's belly contract again after she has a baby."

  Gaia fingered the soft, furry leaves.

  "Want to help me find more?" her mother asked.

  And Gaia had nodded. Just that simply, just by needing Gaia's help, Gaia's mother had known how to make Gaia feel better. Not so lonely.

  Now, years later, Gaia leaned forward, hugging one knee to her chin. There couldn't be a more perfect mother than her mother. Never had anyone been so intuitive, so generous, so real. And her father
was her mother's ideal, balancing match.

  Gaia picked up the loaf of bread that Derek had given her and inspected it. Faintly she could see a mark scored in the top crust, the baked version of the single line she'd seen him cut in the loaves in his shop. He'd made no explanation at the time,


  but now she wondered at it. She glanced up at the two yellow candles on the mantel. She'd kept the tradition of lighting them each evening at dinnertime in honor of her brothers. She thought of the single strand of bluegrass the weaver put into everything he made, and the fresh posies the blacksmith always hung over his anvil. It seemed everyone who had advanced a child remembered the baby in some way, with a mark or a daily ritual.

  Ghost brothers had played beside Gaia her entire life, invisible to all but her parents. Perhaps loss was what had made Gaia's mother so tender. Perhaps she hadn't minded being arrested because she hoped she'd see her sons within the wall.

  No. Her parents deserved to be free.

  Impatience drove Gaia to her feet. All the doors were open to catch any faint breeze. She peered out the open front door, then gently closed it. She lifted her skirt and untied her mothers satchel. Inside was the brown ribbon, carefully embroidered with silk threads. It looked like a pretty decoration a young girl might wear in her hair. It was long enough to wrap around her head several times and knot so the ends would fall down the back, but she didn't put it on. She tried to make out a pattern in the colored threads, but while many of the figures looked like numbers and letters, they were unlike any alphabet she knew. Gaia scanned her mothers note again, side by side with the ribbon, but there was no similarity.

  From down the road, she heard the laughter of a child, and she glanced up. There was the "tock" of a ball against a bat. One of them called something in a merry, high-pitched voice, and the lingering, melodic tone triggered a memory.

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