Birthmarked Page 3

"Why?" she asked.

"We just have some questions," he said. "Where have you been?"

She forced herself to stay calm. She knew to answer truth' fully; she hadn't done anything wrong. Her instincts warned her to cooperate with him just enough that she wouldn't bring more trouble on her parents or on herself. At the same time, she feared him. His gun didn't have to be pointed at her head to be a threat. As she set her satchel on the table, she realized her fingers were trembling, and she hid them behind her back.

"At a birthing. My first," she said. "It was the last house down Barista Alley, a young woman named Agnes Lewis. She had a baby girl, and I advanced her."

He nodded. "Congratulations. The Enclave is fortunate to have your service."

"I'm glad to serve," she replied, using the polite phrase.

"And why did you go to the birthing instead of your mother?" he asked.

"She was already helping another mother. I left a note for her to join me when she was finished, but-- " Her note was still on the table beside the candle. She looked around the little room, feeling the traces of fear that erased the usual homey warmth. The bolts of cloth, the baskets of sewing supplies, the chess set, the cooking pots, her mothers half dozen books, and even her fathers banjo on its shelf were all askew, as if they'd been systematically searched. Sgt. Grey knew perfectly well why her mother had not joined her.

"So you went alone?" he asked.

"A boy came for me and said it was urgent," she said. She moved closer to the fire, picked up a poker, and stirred the coals. Until he made a move to arrest her, she might as well act like they were just having an innocent conversation. A late-night, innocent conversation to top off the arrest of her parents. She was reaching for a log when he put out a hand.

"Allow me," he said.

She withdrew slightly while he threw two logs on the fire and a shower of sparks lit the room with the anticipation of more warmth. Gaia slid off her shawl and set it next to her satchel. To Gaia s surprise, the soldier took the rifle strap off his shoulder, ducking his head beneath it, and propped the rifle against the fireplace. It was almost as if he were making himself at home, as if some innate courtesy were overriding his formal training. Or he was deliberately manipulating her to try to put her more at ease.

"You said you went alone?" he repeated. "You didn't take your mother's assistant?"

She glanced up at him, noting he had a very straight nose and brown hair cut in the neat military style, short in back and a bit longer over the forehead. Though she could not see his shadowed eyes clearly, she sensed an emptiness there that matched the controlled composure of his other features. It chilled her.

"You mean Old Meg?" she said. "No. I didn't take her. Wasn't she with my mother?"

The guard didn't answer. Gaia frowned, coming closer to him, wishing to see his eyes, to verify the coldness she sensed there, despite his gentle tone and considerate manners. "Why are you here?" she asked.

He turned without speaking toward the mantel and slid off what looked like a little pamphlet or book. He tossed it onto the table with a bit of spin so it landed facing her. She could barely make out the title in the candlelight.

Summer Solstice 2403

Extant Members of

The Advanced Cohort of 2390

Are Hereby Invited to Request


"Do you recognize this?" he asked.

She had no idea what it was. "No." She picked it up and flipped to the first page, seeing a list of names.

Katie Abel Alyssa Becca

Mara Ageist Zach Bittman

Dorian Alec Pedro Blood

Dawn Alvina Jesse Boughton

Ziqi Amarata Zephryn Brand

Bethany Appling Gina Cagliano

Kirby Arcado Chloe Cantara

Sali Arnold Brooke Connor

Francesco Amarus Tomy Czera

Jack Bartlett Yustyn Dadd

Bintou Bascanti Isabelle Deggan

It went on alphabetically for several pages, and on a quick glance, none of the names were familiar. The pages were pocked with tiny pinholes in no pattern that she could see. She shook her head.

"You never saw your mother with it? Your father?" he asked.

"No. I've never seen it. Where'd you get it? It looks like an Enclave thing."

"It was at the bottom of your father's sewing box."

She shrugged, tossing it back on the table. "That makes sense. He picks up all kinds of odd papers to stick his pins in."

"Like what other papers?" Sgt. Grey asked. "Anything else you can think of?"

She frowned at him. "Didn't you ask him this yourself?"

He picked up the pamphlet and slid it slowly into the pocket of his jacket.

"I need to know if your mother gave you anything recently-- a list or a record book or a calendar of some sort."

Confused, Gaia glanced automatically at the calendar that hung in the kitchen by the back window. They kept track of when her dad's clothing orders were promised, and when they planned to meet friends at the Tvaltar, and when one of the pullets laid its first egg. It listed her family's birthdays, including her brothers'. Only then did she remember what Old Meg had given her. Gaia's heart fluttered as she thought of what was tied against her leg at that very moment. She didn't know what it was, but if he searched her and found it, would he believe her? She tried to guess, watching the visible lines of his smooth, angular cheeks, and his precise, colorless lips.

"There's the calendar there," she said, pointing to the one on the wall.

"No. Something else. A list perhaps."

"All she gave me is in my satchel," she said. "There's no list."

"May I?" he asked, reaching toward the table.

She made a gesture of permission, as if she had a choice.

Sgt. Grey opened her bag and carefully examined each item as he took it out: the squat, metal, dark-blue teakettle and its two matching cups; the herb kit, a pouched towel with vials and bottles of pills, herbs, and serums that her father had sewn for her and her mother had filled from her own stores of medicines; forceps; a metal bowl; scissors; a kit of scalpels; a knife; needles and thread; a syringe; a suction bulb; the bottle of dye that she had not had time to return to the herb kit; and a ball of red twine.

He then turned the satchel inside out and examined the cloth, every seam and ripple of the brown, gray, and white fabric. Gaia's father had lovingly sewn each stitch, making a thing of beauty as well as a strong, practical bag that fit comfortably over Gaia's shoulder. She felt like the satchel was part of her, and watching Sgt. Grey's examination of the cloth and its contents felt like a keen violation of her privacy, all the more because his fingers were meticulous and careful in their movements.

His hands stilled on the cloth, and he looked over at her finally, his expression neutral. She couldn't tell if he was relieved or disappointed.

"You're young," he said.

His comment surprised her, and she saw no reason to answer. Besides, she could say the same thing to him. He straightened, then exhaled with a sigh and started putting her things back in the satchel.

"It's okay," she said, stepping forward to the table. "I'll do it. I need to clean my things anyway."

She extended her hand as he picked up the bottle of dye, and when he didn't instantly give it to her, she looked up into his face. A gleam of candlelight finally illuminated his eyes. The bleakness she'd sensed in him was as real as a flat, gray stone, but it was also tinged by a hint of curiosity. For a moment his measuring gaze held hers, and then he released the heavy little bottle into her palm and stepped back, away from the candle flame.

"I want to know about my parents," she said, forcing herself to remain calm. "When will they be home?"

"I don't know," he said.

"Not soon? Can I see them?" she asked. Why had he relinquished the charade that everything was all right?


Each of his answers increased her panic, but also her anger, as if a dose of sand was rising up her windpipe. "Why not?"

He adjusted his hat brim over his eyes. "You d best remember your place," he said softly.

It took her a moment to realise he was reprimanding her for her impertinence. He might have been polite and considerate as long as that was efficacious, but he was a soldier of the Enclave and as such he had power over her that she could only barely imagine.

She lowered her face, her cheeks burning, and summoned up the deferential words. "Forgive me, Mabrother," she said.

He reached for his gun, and she heard the shuffling noise of his black coat as he readjusted the strap over his head to the opposite shoulder so it ran diagonally across his torso.

"Should you find a list, record, or calendar anywhere among your mothers things, you will bring it directly and with no delay to the gate, and request an audience with Mabrother Iris, none other. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Mabrother," she said.

"You will take up your mothers duties as a midwife and serve the Enclave in the birthing of babies in Western Sector Three of Wharfton. You will advance the first three babies of each month to the Enclave, each being delivered to the south gate within ninety minutes of the child's birth."

Gaia took a step back. The prospect of going on with her mothers work without her mother to guide her was horrible.

"You agree?" he insisted, his voice sharper.

Startled, she glanced up at him. "Yes, Mabrother," she said.

"You will be compensated. You will receive a double quota of weekly mycoprotein, water, cloth, candles, and fuel. You will be granted weekly fourteen hours at the Tvaltar, which you may accumulate or give to others as you wish."

She bowed her head, knowing this last compensation would allow her to trade for anything else she might need. It was an incredible pay, essentially double what her mother had been earning, and far more than Gaia had ever expected.

"I am grateful to the Enclave," she said quietly.

"The Enclave knows that you advanced your first baby, unassisted," he said, his voice dropping slightly. "This is a baby that might have been easily concealed, or sold, or given to the mother. The Enclave knows you have demonstrated the highest loyalty, and loyalty does not go unrewarded."

Gaia knotted her fingers together. It was almost like the Enclave knew what indecision had gripped her before she advanced the baby. Though she had done the right thing and was being rewarded for it, she was frightened, too. Did they know also that she had stopped to talk to Old Meg? Did they know that even now she had her mothers parcel tied to her leg? What the Enclave knew or did not know had never mattered before, when she had no secrets.

Now it did. She wished Old Meg had never given her the parcel.

She had a startling realization, and suddenly looked up at Sgt. Grey. She could turn it in right now. Her heart leaped into overdrive. She could ask him to wait, and turn to lift her skirt, and take off the parcel right now and hand it over. That would be the safest thing. She could say she'd never even looked at it carefully and had no idea what it was. The guards could catch Old Meg before she got very far.

She bit inward on her lips.

"Yes?" Sgt. Grey asked. "You've thought of something?"

She turned her left cheek toward him, the scarred side, which she showed instinctively when she wished to hide her thoughts. For an instant, she remembered the keening wail of Agnes Lewis as she begged Gaia for her baby Priscilla. Agnes Lewis! Gaia had hardly thought of the mother as a real person until now. Such mother greed was unnatural and disloyal to the Enclave, and yet there had been something so powerful, so desperate in it. Gaia could not fully close herself to Agnes's pain, and it was inextricably tangled up with the parcel Old Meg had given her, as if her mother had sent her the mysterious gift as an antidote.

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