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       Birthmarked, p.6

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  "Ah!" Gaia gasped.

  Letters. The alphabet. The alphabet song. Her father loved to play his banjo and sing, and when Gaia was a girl, one of his special delights had been teaching her to sing the alphabet song

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  backward, starting with Z, T, X. He had used the code in little notes to her as well. She jotted out the reversal code:

  ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ

  ZYXWVUTSRQPONMLKJIHGFEDCBA

  She looked again at her mothers message and began deciphering, switching each letter with its reverse letter in the alphabet so that W became D and so on.

  Destroy it. Destroy this. to to DANNI O

  She slumped back as the mystery only became more puzzling. The message was in her mothers handwriting, but in her fathers code. Did they write it together, or did her mother just remember the trick?

  The message itself was the same thing Old Meg had told her: go to her grandmother, Danni Orion. But Gaia s grandmother had been dead for over ten years. Gaia barely remembered her, and her parents had rarely spoken of her. It had seemed as though there was something shameful or tragic about her death, and now that she thought of it, Gaia didn't even know how her grandmother had died. She didn't remember a funeral.

  Was it possible her grandmother was still alive? Gaia tried to guess how old she would be, and put her in her mid-sixties. Granted, she would be old, but it wasn't inconceivable to live that long. Then again, it might just be her mother's way of telling her to go to the Dead Forest. Frowning, Gaia fingered the piece of brown parchment, turning it over and over in her hand until the paper was warm, and then she reached forward and dropped it into the fire where it flared for a second and shriveled into ash.

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  If she obeyed her mothers command, she would destroy the ribbon as well. She looked closely at the silk threads, hoping they would resolve themselves into a clear message, but the design was inscrutable.

  It made no sense to her. She searched its entire length of approximately three feet, finding a seam where a segment had been sewn on to make it longer, and the threads on the newer segment were brighter. It's uncharacteristically careful for Mom, Gaia thought. Whatever it meant, Gaia couldn't bear to destroy it. She hoped her mother would forgive her.

  She wrapped it smoothly around her thumb, coiling it into a neat, soft loop that fit easily in one hand. Sighing, she slid it back into the little pouch and retied it around her leg. She stood up and poked the wooden spoon back in the pot of red dye. Even the wood of the spoon was dyed red now, and the brown skirt was a deep, dark red. The white shirt remained obstinately pink.

  "Enough," Gaia muttered. She fished out the skirt and dropped it in a basin by the door. When it was cooler, she

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  wrung it out and spread it on the line behind her house, low to the fence where it would not be visible from the road. She added the last of her father's red dye to the pot and watched in satisfaction as it swirled a dark, bloody color that thoroughly infused the shirt. lf Derek wants me in red, I'll come in red, she thought grimly. That was one direction at least that she could follow.

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  Chapter 6

  The Obelisk

  ALTHOUGH SHE'D LEFT THEM on the line to dry late into the evening before donning them, Gala's shirt and skirt were still slightly damp when she left her parents' home for what might be the last time. She shivered as the night air came through the cold seams. The red was concealed beneath her black cloak, and she carried her satchel over her right shoulder. If anyone chanced to see her out and about, they would presume that she was going to a pregnant woman.

  A cricket chirped. As Gaia approached Derek's bakery, the moon slid behind a cloud, and she felt her heart beat faster as much from anticipation as from her steady climb up the hill. His bakery was dark, and she had to touch along the door to locate the handle by feel. She had just found it when the door swung inward.

  "Gently there," came Derek's voice in the dark. She felt him steadying her arm, and she slid silently within. Coals glowed deep in one of the ovens and cast a reddish hue into the room, leaving deep shadows in the corners. She shivered once more in the warmth. Derek's family must be sleeping for no one else was there. In the quiet, the coals made a warm, flickering sizzle.

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  "Are you ready?" she asked.

  "You're certain of this?" he replied. "You could go back home. I could forget we ever talked."

  She shook her head. "I have to see my parents."

  She could hear his deep inhalation of breath. "All right, then. Are you in red?"

  "Yes, under my cloak," she said.

  He picked up a bucket with a cloth over the top. "Where are the Tvaltar passes?" he asked.

  "Here."

  She watched as he held them briefly toward the oven, then deposited them in a drawer.

  "Come on, then," he said. And he opened the door.

  The inky, violet darkness of the street surrounded them as Gaia followed him out of the bakery, and she inhaled the dry scent of night blooms and grass. Somewhere near there must be a eucalyptus tree she had not noticed in the daylight, because now she could smell the medicinal fragrance of its bark.

  In silence, she followed him up the street, then down another. They climbed steadily for nearly an hour, until she was warmed from within and her clothes were completely dry. The moon reemerged, full and perigee, to travel over her shoulder and illuminate the roads as they became narrower and more uneven. The houses grew smaller and more decrepit until the shanty homes seemed hardly more than rootless boxes to echo back the shuffles of their footsteps. She had never been to this area of Wharfton. She thought they were moving away from the wall, but then another turn brought them up against it in a remote place where a limestone cliff merged with the actual stones of the constructed barricade.

  "Wait," Derek said softly.

  She paused, looking back over her shoulder. Farther away, and downward, she was surprised to see the glow of the gate

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  where so often she had delivered babies. She could even see the small, alert figures of the guards, shrunken by the distance. Along the eastern horizon, the short summer night was al' ready yielding to a hint of purple. She turned back to the hulking mass of the wall, seeing a guard tower above and to her left. She couldn't tell if it was occupied.

  Derek was doing something at the base, something that made a quiet chinking noise. She huddled nearer and put out a hand to brace herself on the cool, gritty stone. Close up, in' fused with ghostly light, the blocks of pale granite looked roughly hewn and patched with lichen, but together they created an unyielding surface that rose six or seven meters high. By the moonlight, she saw Derek remove a large, flat stone. Surprised, Gaia realized it must have been already loose.

  "Is it a passage?" she asked.

  "Hush," he said. Then he drew her nearer, and she peered down to knee level, where an opening showed a glow of pale light on the other side. The opening was a space barely larger than the underside of a kitchen stool, but by crouching and crawling, she could make it through. This is it, she thought. I'm going inside the wall. She dipped her head into the opening, breathing in the fusty, earthy scent.

  "Take this," he said.

  "What is it?" She looked back to see a bulging towel in his hand.

  "Dough. When you get through, I'll move the stones back in place. Take the dough and spread it like mortar between the stones."

  "But what if they see me?" she asked.

  "You'll be behind a hedge, near a refuse pit. It's unlikely anyone will be looking. But you have to fill in the mortar or the loose stones will be seen during the day. You understand?"

  Gaia nodded, taking the towel.

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  "Then hide your cape and keep the hood of your tunic up," he said. "You'll be able to walk a bit like that, unnoticed. The Bastion servants often walk about the streets at night, and the guards don't bother them."

  She nodded again, but she was becoming increa
singly afraid. She had no idea where to go once she was inside, and no one else to help her. She had only the vaguest idea of where the prison was.

  "Thank you, Derek," she said.

  "Whatever you do, don't try to get out again this way by daylight," he said. "They'd catch you in a second, and when they realise that mortar isn't mortar, they'll start looking for me."

  "I promise," she said.

  She felt his heavy hand on her shoulder, and then his mouth was close to her ear. "Do you know where you're going?" he asked.

  "The prison," she whispered. "Near the Bastion."

  "Go up," he said. "All the trouble lies uphill, near the obelisk. You can use it for your landmark. If you need help, look for a baker with a black oven. Mace Jackson. He's friendly. I'll put out the word for you."

  Gaia wished he could tell her more.

  "Up with the hood. You don't want to distract them with all that beauty," he added. He tugged her hair briefly in a friendly way. "Now go find your sweetheart," he said.

  She ducked her head, set her hands inside the rough surface of the wall, and crawled forward toward the light. She had barely passed through when she heard Derek closing up the gap behind her, and she looked back. Even now, the gap was vanishing as Derek's two flat stones filled the hole. With shaking hands, she rolled the dough out of the towel and wedged it into the seams around the stones. Despite the

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  streetlight farther along the road, it was dark in the cavity where she was working, and she fumbled with the dough, scraping her fingers as she tried to smooth it in. At last she had wedged in all she could.

  She turned again toward the inner street and saw the refuse pit on her right. Rubbing her hands on the towel, she tossed it in with the refuse and then swiftly took off her black cape and tucked it under a pile of broken earthenware crockery. Then she straightened her red tunic and skirt, and slid forward toward the street and the streetlamp that glowed there. A bug pinged against the glass globe and flew back into the warm darkness.

  Her fear mixed with a thrill of promise and hope. She would find her parents. Maybe she would even see her brothers, too. In theory, any boys she met who were nineteen or twenty years old might be her brothers. She wondered if she could recognize them purely on a family resemblance. How amazing that would be.

  She was instantly aware of how clean everything was inside the wall. Every building was whitewashed, so that even by night, a little bit of light went a long way. On the narrow streets, the doorways were set on high sills over clean-swept gutters, and she saw frequent drain grates, so she knew that what she'd heard was true: the rain was saved from the streets, saved for recycling into drinking water. It would take work, but we could do the same thing outside, she thought. By the occasional streetlights, she could see urns hanging in some of the windows, large, decorated ceramic water holders that would keep the contents cool even in the scorching heat of midsummer. That, at least, was the same.

  Gaia walked firmly and quickly along the dark streets, startled when her motion triggered streetlamps to come on while she passed. Thin, white light from the little bulb in each lamp

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  was magnified and reflected around her. Whenever there was an option of which direction to take, she chose the way that sloped uphill. Eventually she came to a main street, wider than the others, bordered with finer row houses. She had a glimpse of shadowy vegetation coming over the white walls, and in one place she recognized the leaves of an apple tree, so she knew gardens were tended on the other side. It was all just as she'd seen in the Tvaltar specials, only better because now it was real.

  Twice she passed other women traveling in pairs, all dressed in red. They barely glanced at her as she drew the hood of her tunic near her face and kept on. Once a solitary old man passed her, and then several young men, but they all ignored her, and with growing confidence, she realized Derek had been right: she was taken for a servant. At last, as the sky began to lighten in the east, she came to a graveled open area with several closed shops, and then farther above, a wider, stone-paved square with an enormous building at one end that stretched the entire width of the space. This, she realized, must be the Square of the Bastion. Arched arcades lined two sides of the square, and a prodigious obelisk monument dominated the center, black against the distant purple of the sky.

  Gaia stepped under an arcade and rested beside one of the wooden columns. Near the obelisk, a pair of men were hammering at a platform, a single lightbulb illuminating their work, and their rhythmic bangs echoed around the square.

  At right angles to the largest building, the Bastion, along the fourth side of the square, were several functional looking buildings behind tall iron fences. A tall, brick archway separated two of them, and beyond, Gaia glimpsed a smaller court' yard. She was starting in that direction when she heard a cry that made her pause.

  It was the cry of a baby, and the noise keyed directly into

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  Gala's nervous system, setting her on high alert. She scanned the buildings for the noise, and above the arched arcade she saw a window with a light glowing behind a curtain. The cry subsided, then came once more. An arm reached out of the window and pulled a shutter closed. Gaia listened intently, but then the only noise she could hear was the distant voice of one of the workers while the hammering paused. Unnerved, she pulled her cloak closer around her. That might be a baby she herself had advanced.

  She examined the building, looking for signs that it might be the Nursery, but she judged it was more likely to be a private apartment, like others above the shops of the arcade.

  "It's okay," Gaia whispered, calming herself. She was all right so far, but she was impatient to know more about her surroundings. It was daunting to realize how little practical information she had gathered from the Tvaltar specials shed seen. They had focused on celebrations and holidays, when what she could use now was a guidebook with a decent map.

  Gaia drew back farther as the clatter of marching feet approached, and suddenly four guards appeared in the tall, brick archway. They stomped loudly past Gaia, and she saw that in the midst of them was a fifth figure, a man whose hands were tied behind him and who stumbled along on bare feet. They marched toward the massive building at the end of the square and up the shallow stairs to the great door. It opened to admit them, and all five men disappeared inside the Bastion.

  Gaia shivered. She turned again to the archway the guards had come from, and now she was certain the prison lay beyond it. Glancing up, she saw a small tower above and to the right of the arch, its dark angles silhouetted against the ever-brightening sky. If a guard were surveying the square, she would be visible where she stood. Turning sharply to her left, she skirted the edge of the building and circled around to the back. More barred

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  windows met her gaze, and with them her hopes sank. How would she ever get into the prison to see her parents? And worse, how would she ever get them out?

  "Hey! You there!" a voice called.

  She jumped nervously and turned.

  A tall guard was ambling toward her. "What are you selling?"

  "Nothing," she gasped. "I was just-- "

  "Get along, then. No gawking. You won't see nothing from here. Come back later at noon, and you'll get your view."

  Gaia stepped back a pace. "Yes, Mabrother," she said. She turned and hurried away, barely noticing her direction in her eagerness to leave him behind. She heard him laugh, and the noise sounded brittle and cold to her ears.

  The sky was becoming gradually lighter, with a tinge of yellow, and more people were coming out into the streets. She kept walking, afraid to stop, afraid to go too far downhill again in case she got lost. Above, people hung out lines of laundry between the buildings, and as she looked down, she marveled to see that everyone wore shoes, even the children. Old or young, everyone looked healthy and well fed.

  Outside the wall, it was common to see someone with a scar or a deformed hand or crutches. But here in th
e Enclave, where there were no deformities or handicaps of any kind, her scar would seem even more freakish. Anyone who saw it would know she was from the outside, and she walked in perpetual fear that someone would peer closely inside her hood. Once a young boy looked up into her face and pulled the hand of the woman beside him. "Look," he said, pointing, but by the time his mother turned, Gaia had concealed her scar again.

  By late morning, Gaia had wandered much of the area around the main square. She was thirsty, tired, and afraid. As she saw it, her choices were to seek help from Derek's friend

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  Mace, if she could find the baker with a black oven; try to find Masister Khol at the Nursery in case she might help her the way she'd helped with passing her mothers note; or keep a low profile until night, when she could escape again through Derek's hole in the wall. She searched in vain for the bakery and the Nursery, passing a graveyard, a bicycle shop, several ware' houses and cafes, and the mycoprotein factory before circling back to the square again.

  Then, as noon drew near, the square began to fill with people. In her anxiety, she studied their faces under their hat brims and gauzy hoods, watching for Masister Khol or a young man who could be one of her brothers, but as the faces turned into dozens and then hundreds, she despaired of finding one she might recognize. Gradually she noticed a pattern in the vivid colors of their clothing. The guards wore black. Red-clad female servants passed frequently, some with arm baskets or young children by the hand. Sturdy men and women of all ages wore blues and grays and browns, and she guessed these were a middle class by their relaxed airs and the jovial way the men slapped each other on the back. Children darted by in yellow and red and green, their wide-brimmed hats tilting with speed, while a separate class of elegant men and women wore only white that gleamed in the sunlight. Those in white lingered in loosely knit social groups nearest the Bastion, where there was a row of shady pecan trees, and they laughed and talked idly, occasionally giving coins to their children to buy a trinket or a drink from a vendor.

 
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