Birthmarked Page 24

The guard gave her arm a sharp pinch, and she gasped.

"Think you're better than me?" he whispered.

She clenched her teeth, hoping desperately that this man would not be in charge of her for long.

"You're nothing but a cheap slut from outside the wall," he hissed.

Then the door opened, and she was ushered into a lighted hallway that smelled unexpectedly of some faint perfume. The guards fell silent and after a last shove, they allowed her a little distance.

She was standing in a vast, open space that was completely antithetical to the plain, practical facade of the building. Nothing she had ever seen on the Tvaltar had prepared her for this sight. A pair of potted gardenia bushes, responsible for the pure fragrance, stood at the bottom of a grand, white staircase that ascended in a double curve upward, out of sight. White tiles, with smaller inlays of black tile in a whimsical, geometric pat-tern, graced the floor. Beyond the staircase, the walls seemed to be made entirely of French doors and she saw the green light of a solarium behind the panes. To Gaia's immediate left and right were enormous matching wooden doors, both sets carved with figures and trees.

Gaia stood waiting among her guards, grateful for their silence, and then, unexpectedly, she heard a snatch of childish laughter come from somewhere in the back of the house. A small boy of two or three years came running around the corner in a bright blue nightshirt and a pair of fluffy pink slippers that were clearly too big for him. He carried a small yellow ball. His laughter was a bright, joyful noise, completely in' congruous with the desperate situation she found herself in, and she stood still, caught in anticipation, knowing that any moment he would see her and the guards.

He was moving so fast that he'd gotten partly past their group before he saw them, and then he skidded in his slippers, his laughter abruptly gone. She watched his foot catch against his own ankle, and then he was down, sprawled in a blue heap on the white tile, and his ball was jarred loose from his hand. Instinctively, she took a half step toward him, but strong hands held her back.

The small yellow ball skidded forward across the white and black tiles, landed before her, and proved to be her father's lemon-shaped pincushion. Gaia was astounded. By what circuitous route could the pincushion have traveled from Leon's pocket to become this child's plaything?

The next moment, an older girl of nine or ten came running around in the path of the boy. Her blond, wavy hair stood out around her pink-cheeked face in a glorious haze.

"Michael!" she called, her voice breathless with mirth. "If you don't give me back my slippers-- " Her voice broke off as she saw them, and she stumbled to a stop. The boy scrambled forward to grab the pincushion just as she ran to him, crouching to scoop him up into his arms.

"Aunt Genevieve!" she screamed. She was backing up the way she'd come, carrying the heavy child.

A third person now came wrathfully around the corner. "What on earth?" she demanded.

Gaia stared. This was the woman she'd seen only the day before, when she was walking with Leon: Genevieve Quarry, the Protectorate wife. And she looked furious.

"Britta. Take him back to the kitchen. Immediately," Genevieve said to the girl.

As the children backed away another step, and then hurried away, Genevieve stormed forward.

"How dare you," she demanded, her cultured voice scathing even at a hush.

"Excuse me, Masister Quarry," the guard said. "I was told to bring her to Mabrother Iris first thing."

Gaia felt Genevieve's piercing gaze turn to her, and she instinctively backed up.

"Then do your job," Genevieve said contemptuously to the guard. She rapped on the door to Gaia's left, and instantly it was opened from within.

"Get this rabble out of my foyer, Winston," Genevieve said.

"I beg your pardon," Winston said smoothly, stepping aside and gesturing Gaia's group inside. "An oversight that will not be repeated."

Genevieve was already disappearing toward the depths of the house. "Miles will hear of this," she said over her shoulder, and her quiet voice carried clearly.

Winston was a stocky, middle-aged doorkeeper with a small mouth and little expression, even when he was being scolded. He merely nodded again, hurried them inside, and closed the door.

Gaia expected Winston to chastise the other guards, but he said nothing, leading them down a hallway. "Watch the step there," he said courteously, pointing, as he preceded them down two stairs, and then guided them down several passages. Gaia passed a row of tall windows, each offering a glimpse of the fog and the denser silhouette of the monument.

When Winston led them next up a staircase, a practical, boxy one with narrow treads, Gaia had the impression the Bastion had two distinct functions: the beautiful, gracious home that Genevieve and the children inhabited, and the no' nonsense part that she was entering as a bound prisoner. In a way, it's only a more extreme version of the society I already live in, Gaia thought, another division, like the one that separates those who live inside and outside the wall. She had just seen where the worlds collided.

"Here, one moment," Winston said finally, pausing before a tall, wooden door. Other similar doors lined the hallway. There was a carpet runner down the center of the hall and 'windows at both ends.

Winston knocked, and a voice invited them in. Gaia stepped into a large, airy room, lined with books and carpeted with a sumptuous rug that muffled her footsteps. A yellow canary made a skittering noise in a cage by one of the windows.

"What's this?" An annoyed voice spoke, and Gaia saw a small, gray haired man with glasses and slumped shoulders peer at them from over a desk. His white clothing had trim, tailored lines without appearing to be strictly a uniform. It was a peculiar desk, with a glass top and a light shining through it from below, so that the man s face was lit under his chin and nose and eyebrows, giving him an unearthly appearance.

"It's the scarred girl from outside," the guard said. "Gaia Stone."

"I can see that," the man said irritably. "What's with the rest of you?"

The guards stood stupidly for a moment.

Winston cleared his throat. "Thank you," he said to the head guard. "We can take it from here."

The guard set his jaw stubbornly. "She's dangerous. I'm supposed to take every precaution."

"Indeed," Winston said. "And you have done so. Let me show you out."

Gaia was left standing beside the door as it closed gently, and the last noise of the guards and Winston could be heard receding down the hallway. Her hands were still tied behind her and her gray dress was rumpled from all the jerking she'd been subjected to, but she took a deep breath and told herself to remain calm. She stood quietly, waiting. Based on what the guard had told the Protectorat's wife, she realized the old man must be Mabrother Iris. He doesn't look\ lie a torturer, she thought cautiously, and this seems more like a library than a prison cell. But still. She wondered briefly what would have happened if, weeks ago, she had reported to the south gate with her ribbon and asked to see Mabrother Iris, as Leon had advised her to do.

He adjusted his glasses, his attention still on his desk. Gaia took a slight step forward and noticed that the top of the desk was like an enormous television set, but with a dozen screens overlapping at once.

"Come," he said impatiently.

As Gaia stepped silently across the thick carpet, he touched the top of the desk with his fingertip, and a scene appeared: a father beside the unlake, and a red haired woman dandling a baby before her. The sun was just coming up, and both parents were dressed in simple work clothes. The woman let her hat fall back and hang from the strings around her neck. They were smiling and their mouths moved, but Gaia couldn't hear their voices.

"Yes, come here," the man said, beckoning her to come stand beside him. "Precisely here. Not too close," he said, wrinkling his nose as if she smelled.

"Are you Mabrother Iris?" she asked.

"Watch," he commanded, pointing to the screen.

Gaia looked more carefully, and when she realized the woman in the screen was Emily, she impulsively smiled. "Oh!" she said. "I know them! Emily's had her baby, then. Is it a boy?"

"Yes," the man said.

She was puzzled. "When was she in a movie?" she asked.

"Unbelievable," the man muttered to himself. "It's now, girl," he said. "There's a camera focused on them now. They're taking a morning walk before they go to work."

As Gaia grasped what he was saying, she realized there must be cameras aimed strategically around Wharfton. She'd always supposed there were a few informants in Wharfton who relayed information to the Enclave, but she hadn't guessed there were actually cameras spying on them in real time. That's how the Enclave seemed to know everything as soon as it happened.

"Do you have cameras everywhere?" she asked.

"Watch now," the man said. "This is a lesson for you."

"If you're Mabrother Iris," she said nervously. "Do you know where my mother is?"

The man gripped Gaia's arm with unexpected strength and pushed his face near to her own. "Of course I know where your mother is. But now, you need to watch this."

He slapped his hand down upon the desk so hard the images vibrated for a moment. Gaia was stunned that he spoke of her mother in the present tense; that he knew where she was.

With a surge of hope, she obediently turned her gaze to the screen on his desk and saw a raven, huge and black, settle on the stones by Emily's feet. Kyle pointed it out with big, goofy gestures, but the baby was far too young to appreciate a bird, and instead continued to gurgle at his mom. Gaia could see Emily say something, laughing.

Mabrother Iris pushed a little button on the edge of the desk. "Take out the bird," he said.

At first nothing changed, except that Emily passed the baby to his dad. Then there was a blur of black at the edge of the screen and the parents simultaneously jumped in alarm. At their feet, the bird was reduced to a motionless mass of feathers with one crooked foot pleading upward. The camera view zoomed out, shrinking the image of the parents, who were running with their baby as fast as possible back toward the houses of Wharfton. Emily's auburn hair flew wildly behind her, and though there was no sound, Gaia saw that she was crying out in panic and fear.

Chapter 16 Cooperation

WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?" she asked, uncomprehending. She had known the Enclave could be systematically cruel, as when they executed prisoners in the Square of the Bastion, but the bird had been harmless. The cruelty was so pointless. The horror of it, the scope of his power, made her cold. As Mabrother Iris turned deliberately, watching Gaia intently, she backed away.

"You commanded a soldier on the wall to shoot the bird," she said. "What if his aim had been poor?"

Mabrother Iris lifted his tinted glasses and propped them in the gray hair on top of his head. The pupils of his eyes were preternaturally dilated, reducing his irises to the narrowest rings of pale blue. "I need to be certain I have your entire CO' operation," he said.

"Or what?" she asked, breathless. "You'll kill me?"

He tilted his face slightly, contemplating her with fathom' less eyes. "No. Emily's baby, maybe. Or Sephie Frank. You liked her, didn't you? Or how about Leon?" His voice was deceptively casual.

"You wouldn't."

"How about your mother?" he added.

She shook her head stiffly, her mind scrambling to keep up with each evermore painful threat. "I don 't even believe she's still alive." The hard truth hit her again. "You lied to give your' self more leverage."

The man stepped nearer the desk again. "Maybe not so stupid after all," he muttered, and touched the desk with his fingertip.

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