Birthmarked Page 23

Gaia looked around expectantly, hoping one of the other women would elaborate. Cotty s knitting needles made a steady clicking. Myrna was sitting with her book open again, conspicuously refraining from joining the gossip.

"What happened to her?" Gaia asked. "I mean, I remember she died in an accident, but how?"

"Fiona fell," Brooke said. "From her bedroom window one night. Broke her neck."

Gaia felt an eerie tingle of alarm, remembering the way Leon had warned her away from the cliff in the garden. She wondered if he had been thinking then of his stepsister. "After Fiona's death, there was hardly ever anything about the Protectorate family on the Tvaltar," Gaia said, remembering more now. "Genevieve. I remember a photo of her crying at the funeral."

Brooke nodded, and Cotty made a sympathetic humming noise. "Very unfortunate," Cotty repeated. "The whole business. Best not to talk about it."

"But what did Leon do to get disowned?" Gaia pressed. "What's a crime against the state?"

The women looked nervously at each other, but no one spoke until Myrna turned her flat black eyes on Gaia. "It's a genetic crime," she said.

"Like what?"

She looked at Cotty and Brooke.

"Like what we're accused of," Cotty said.

Gaia remembered what the doctors had first told her, but she was confused. "How could Leon have falsified genetic tests or helped with an abortion?"

Cotty and Brooke said nothing. Gaia looked around the circle of women, and then finally to Myrna.

"He slept with his aunt," Myrna said.

"No," Gaia said, aghast.

Myrna shrugged, looking at her book again. "It's what I heard."

Gaia turned beseechingly to Cotty. "Is it true?" she whispered.

"No," Cotty said, scowling at Myrna. "That was just a rumor. There were all kinds of crazy rumors, not half of them true, I'm sure. His Aunt Maura is ten years older than him and a very genteel, married woman. I'm sure she'd never do such a thing. Myrna, you should know better than to torment the girl."

Myrna merely rolled her eyes as if she found them both incredibly boring.

"But then, what did happen?" Gaia asked Cotty.

"Well, I don't know exactly. Nobody knows," Cotty said. "We could gossip until we're blue in the face, but nobody has any facts. Frankly, I thought it was pretty disgusting, all the speculation there was. For a while there, it sounded like he'd slept with every girl in the Bastion, which was obviously not true. Any way, he took his mother's maiden name, Grey, for his last name and joined the guard, and we didn't hear much more about him."

Gaia slowly rolled more blue yarn around her fingers. "Why didn't this gossip make it outside the wall?" she asked.

"I'm sure it did," Cotty said. "It must have. Maybe you just weren't listening."

Gaia must have been twelve or thirteen at the time, she reasoned. Her parents, never much for gossip, might have talked about it a little, and Old Meg certainly would have talked about it, but it hadn't made an impact on Gaia. She had known that

Fiona had died, but she certainly hadn't registered Leon's new last name. Perhaps his scandal had been overshadowed by the mourning.

Now she pondered the little bit she knew, troubled by the sordid possibilities. She couldn't believe Leon had slept with his aunt. The idea was sick. It would violate everything decent she knew about him. She could not believe it, but certainly something had happened to cause his disgrace. He felt he de' served it.

That was the key. Her hands stilled on the ball of yarn, and she let her gaze drift up to the windows. No matter what the rumors were, Leon believed he'd done something wrong, some evil that warranted exclusion from his family and a life in the guard. That existence, carrying out the Enclave's laws without question, had stymied everything else in his nature, and in essence, he'd chosen that. He'd chosen to surrender his own ethics. He'd chosen to become callous.

She glanced up at Myrna to find the older woman looking at her through tired eyes. She felt a chill around her heart, remembering Myrna's warning: they'll use you. And him.

"Give it enough time, and this place will destroy even you," Myrna said softly.

Gaia stood, handed the ball of yarn back to Cotty, and walked into her bedroom cell.

After dinner, while the others were walking in the court' yard, Cotty sewed a pocket inside the waistband of Gaia's dress for her. "In case you get more bread," Cotty said, patting the fabric smooth before she gave back the dress. "Or anything else. You can smuggle in treats for us."

Gaia smiled, thanking her, but she doubted she 'would have more opportunities to walk with Leon as Cotty was obviously implying. Gaia pulled the dress over her head.

"Can I ask you something?" Gaia asked softly, working the buttons. "Have you known Myrna long?"

Cotty gave a brief laugh and poked her needle into a spool of gray thread. "You want to know why she's so mean, don't you?" Cotty said.

Gaia wouldn't have put it that bluntly, but now she nodded.

"She has a heart, I know that," Cotty said slowly. "But I think she pushes people away before they can disappoint her. I heard she was married briefly, long ago, and it ended badly. I know for certain she's been thwarted about wanting to start a clinic. She argued that we need a blood bank for the hemophiliacs and a teaching clinic for doctors, but the Protectorat flatly refuses."

"Why?" Gaia asked.

Cotty shook her head, putting her spools and scissors in a little box. "It was one of the founding principles: no hospitals, no extreme medicine. Just antibiotics and mor**ine. They thought anything more just catered to the weak. It was a choice about resources, brutal but necessary. Now Myrna thinks things have changed."

Gaia gazed up at the three windows, puzzling over the possibilities. "She's a good doctor. If she were in charge, more people might live longer."

"I agree. But the Protectorat has his point, too. There's no shame in dying. His focus is on the whole population, what's best for everyone, not what's best for an individual. He and Myrna just come from different perspectives."

"And he's in charge," Gaia said dryly.

Cotty made a soft clucking noise, and Gaia glanced over to see her warm, crooked smile. "Don't you worry about Myrna," Cotty said kindly. "She's mean, but she's smart. And she's not like Sephie."

"How do you mean?" Gaia asked, puzzled.

Cotty gave a sideways, apologetic glance. "I don 't like to speak ill of someone who's not here. Let me just say, it's easy to like Sephie because she's so warm and friendly. But when she has to, she'll always choose the easiest route."

Gaia grew uncomfortable, not certain -what to say.

"I'm sorry," Cotty continued. "I was only trying to say, you can count on Myrna." She rubbed the bridge of her nose thoughtfully. "Maybe that's why she's here."

That night, when the others were asleep, Gaia took out her little mirror and tried to see her face in the darkness. It was pointless, of course. The little oval mocked her by reflecting only the near-black of the night shadows, as if she herself were invisible. She ran her thumb slowly over the smooth surface of the glass, and then slid the mirror into her new pocket. At night, with nothing to distract her, she missed her mother and father so intensely, the loneliness invaded her heart like a cold, soundless mist. Myrna, Leon, and even Cotty-- these new people in her life didn't know her. They didn't know who she really was inside, or the intricate workings of her heart. There was nobody now who really loved her, she realized.

Nobody but her mother, wherever she was. Gaia had a flashing memory of her mother standing at the edge of the back porch, her face turned up toward the sunlight, squinting and half smiling as she reached up to untangle the strands of the wind chime.

You really should brush your hair back, Gaia. Let me braid it for you.

Unbidden tears crowded against Gaia's eyelids. Her hair was short now. Her mother was gone. She turned her head against her flat mattress, automatically keeping the tender skin of her scar upward, and told herself she would not cry.

Chapter 15 The Yellow Pincushion

It WAS BARELY LIGHT when the guards came.

"Gaia Stone!" a man 's voice yelled.

She rolled out of bed, her bare feet hitting the cold floor.

Myrna ran in and gripped her arms tightly, pulling her near in a sudden, fierce hug. "They're here for you," she whispered tersely. "Stay strong. Remember, whatever you do, whatever you say, your first job is to survive."

Gaia clutched at her, terrified, as the guard entered the bed' room and jerked Gaia away.

"Shoes!" he yelled. "Where are your shoes?"

Gaia looked to the floor, where the shoes lay, and Myrna picked them up and thrust them to Gaia.

"Quickly!" the guard yelled again, and the instant her shoes were on, he grabbed her again and roughly tied her hands behind her back.

"Where are you taking her?" Cotty asked.

The other women came from their rooms, too, and watched in horror as the guards hurried Gaia toward the door. As one of them began to cry, Gaia was reminded of the day they took Sephie away. She had one last look over her shoulder at Myrna, who was standing alone under the windows while the other women grouped together in a terrified hug. Myrna's stony face was harsh with bitterness, and her fists were clenched rigidly at her sides.

"You hear me? Your first job is to survived Myrna repeated.

The door banged shut behind her. If Gaia had ever believed the older doctor was indifferent to her, she knew now she was wrong. What Gotty had said was true. The sharp commands, the sarcasm: these were Myrna s version of affection, and now Gaia clung to Myrna's last words of advice.

The next moment, Gaia was being hauled up the stairs and along another hallway. She was barely able to keep on her feet, and she was prevented from falling only by the rough grasp of the guards who held her arms, one on each side. When they reached the main entrance, she looked around desperately, hoping to see Leon, but there were only more unfamiliar guards dressed in black. Half a dozen of them fell into step around her as they left the prison, passing under the stone arch into the cool, dim air of the deserted square. A swirl of fog enshrouded the obelisk in the middle of the square.

With a jolt, she remember the first day she was there, when a man was dragged to the Bastion at dawn, just as she was being dragged. Later the pregnant woman and her husband had been hanged. Terror coursed through her, and her feet refused to propel her forward.

"Come now," the guard on her left said roughly, jerking her so that she half fell out of her loose loafers.

Gaia gasped in pain as her tied hands twisted in the tight rope, and then she lunged forward between the guards. When they led her straight toward the Bastion, Gaia's alarm mush' roomed with the cold air in her lungs.

"No," she whispered.

"You'll come, and no more fuss," the guard said in her ear.

Gaia recoiled, but the two guards lifted her by her arms up the stairs, and plopped her back on her feet when they arrived at the door. As they waited for the door to be opened, Gaia had her first chance to catch her breath. One of the guards leaned nearer, and lightly lifted the bangs that had fallen fop ward over her eyes.

Gaia jerked her head back, glaring at him.

"Ha," the man said, his breath sour in her face. "I thought we had a pretty one here, but she's right disgusting."

The guard in the front turned slightly. "That's how we know we've got the right one," he said briefly. "Her scar."

Gaia burned with resentment, but anything was better than the unthinking panic she'd felt before. She stood straighter now, eyeing the first guard coldly. His eyes protruded and a mottled, bulbous nose overhung his lips as he leered at her. Pride took hold and saved her from reacting to him. She turned her gaze forward, toward the door.

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