Birthmarked Page 36

"Pearl?" Mace asked in the darkness.

"At last," she said.

When Gaia struck a match to light the little candle on the brick of the oven, Mace and Pearl were in each others arms. With Pearl's broad shoulders and Mace's powerful bulk, they were like two bears embracing. Gaia had to smile.

"Who's this?" Mace asked, his voice deep and low, his black eyes directed over Pearl's shoulder toward Leon.

"He's a friend of Gaia's," Pearl said quickly.

"He's Leon Quarry," Mace said severely, releasing Pearl. "Do you have any idea what would happen to us if they found him here?"

Gaia stepped slightly in front of Leon. "It's not like that," she said. "I'm sorry, Mace. I never meant to-- "

"Derek Vlatir sent me," Leon interrupted. "He's my father. He told me to come to you."

Mace peered at Leon closely, and then he picked up a knife. "I don't care what Derek said."

"Mace," Pearl said firmly, with a warning hand on his arm.

"Please," Gaia said. "He's with us now. With me. We just want to rescue my mother, and then we'll leave."

Mace's eyes flashed to Gaia, and he looked pained. "Not him, Gaia. He's worse than scum." His voice dropped in warning. "You don't know what he's like."

"Yes, I do," she said. "And I'm telling you to trust me."

She turned to Leon beside her and saw his eyes were tight with restrained anger. He said nothing to defend himself. Mace made a disgusted noise and jabbed the knife back in its block. Then the woman in white who had remained by the door moved forward into the candlelight. Gaia recognized Masister Khol. Her lips were turned down with disdain.

"Who would have guessed? Both of you here," Masister Khol said, looking first at Gaia and then Leon. "The whole city's looking for you."

Leon's voice was carefully neutral. "Have you come to help us or threaten us?"

Masister Khol stiffened into a more imposing figure. "I didn't know you were involved with the girl," she said to Leon.

"Wait. Please," Gaia said, stepping forward again. "We just need your help to get me to my mother. That's all. If you 11 just do that much, we'll be grateful."

"It's never just that much," Masister Khol said. "I passed you a note once from your mother, but did it end there?"

Gaia didn't know what to say. She turned to Pearl, and Pearl moved beside Masister Khol, speaking too softly for Gaia to understand her.

Gaia glanced at Leon, but his face was impassive. Mace tugged on the overhead light. Crowding past Leon and ignoping everything else, Mace washed his hands. Then he pulled a wide, flat board from a shelf, set it on the table and dusted it with flour from a sack on the counter.

Gaia stood helplessly, watching Pearl and Masister Khol, until finally they turned.

Masister Khol spoke to Mace as if he were the only person in the room. "Sometime this morning, I'll be crossing the Square of the Bastion with a heavy basket. If I see a boy there to carry it for me, I'll take him with me into the southeast tower. Nothing more. He can stay for five minutes. I have important work to do for the Enclave and no time for this nonsense. I refuse to be implicated if a crime is committed."

Mace bowed his head briefly. Gaia had a million questions, but Mace gave her a hard look, and she remained silent.

"Thank you, Joyce," Pearl said. "I appreciate it. I really do."

Masister Khol turned to the door. With one hand on the latch, she paused and turned her face toward Pearl. "If I could lessen your real loss, Pearl," she said, "you know that I would. I wish you wouldn't deceive yourself that a stunt like this makes any difference." A moment later, she was gone.

Pearl dashed the back of her hand across her eyes and clapped her hands together once. "You heard Joyce," Pearl said. She reached for her apron. "We've got no time at all. She'll take you up, Gaia, but the rest is up to you. She'll have to be able to say she was tricked just like anyone else. Let's get Oliver and Yvonne."

Everyone jumped to action, moving as swiftly and quietly as possible. Oliver was sent to find some of Jet's apprentice clothes for Gaia, and some of his own for Leon. Yvonne was braiding lengths of laundry line into a sturdy rope. Mace worked the dough before him with silent, unhurried movements, and when the next trays of risen dough were in the oven, he started to load the cart to take to the market. Pearl wrapped a long swatch of brown cotton cloth around Gaia's torso, bulking up her waist and shoulders with padding. When Gaia slipped on the apprentice's blue shirt and pants, followed by a white baker s apron and a brown coat, Yvonne turned from her web of laundry line and giggled at her.

"You look like Jet on a bad day," Yvonne said. "Even the hair."

"Thanks," Gaia said.

She took a couple of strides in the pants, getting used to the feel of them. Women in Wharfton wore pants occasion' ally, if their work called for it or the winter turned cold, but it wasn't common. Gaia hadn't worn leggings since she was a girl.

"You have to walk with your legs apart, like this," Yvonne said. She demonstrated, giggling.

Pearl had whipped together a quick, thin batter, and it hit the flat skillet with a hissing noise as she poured a super thin crepe.

"Hat," Pearl said curtly, and Yvonne sprinted upstairs, returning shortly with a boy s deep-brimmed brown hat.

Gaia twitched in her clothes, trying to get comfortable, and she watched Pearl lay two thin crepes to cool on a flat, clean towel. They were circular and light, with a flexibility and texture that were surprisingly like skin.

"They're too pale for her," Leon said, pausing as he passed through the kitchen with an armload of baguettes.

"What do you know? Get out of my way," Pearl said. "Go shave, why don't you?"

Leon shot Gaia a quick look, almost a smile, and then he and Oliver and Mace were busy with preparing the cart. They kept opening and closing the front door of the shop as they normally did when loading up on market day, and the cool air brought goose bumps to Gaia's arms and neck.

"Sit," Pearl said, pointing Gaia toward a stool directly in the light. She touched Gaia's chin, and Gaia obediently tipped her face upward, closing her eyes. She felt cool dabs of a pasty substance being applied to the scarred skin of her left cheek, and she was amazed by the firm tenderness of Pearl's touch. Next she felt a cool, damp, suffocating fabric cover her entire face, and she had to fight back an instinctive fear. An instant later, the right side was lifted away, and Gaia realized Pearl had laid one of the crepes on her face and bisected it down her nose. With her eyelids still closed, Gaia was intensely aware of Pearl working closely over her face. She could feel the woman's breath against her neck, and sometimes her ear, and she could hear a faint clicking noise Pearl made in the back of her throat as she concentrated.

Next there was a brush of powder that Gaia felt distinctly on her right cheek and forehead, but as only the faintest pres' sure on her left side. Pearl made a dissatisfied sound, and Gaia heard her turning back to her flour and spices. A moment later, Gaia felt more brushing, and Pearl blew sharply on her face so that Gaia winced.

"It's awful," Yvonne said, and Gaia's eyes shot open in alarm.

Yvonne was grinning at her, and Pearl, inches away, was frowning as she touched the mask like new skin on Gaia's left check.

"Well, it's obviously a speed job," Pearl said. "But it will do, if you keep a hat on and they don't look too closely." She sat back on the opposite stool, and Gaia cautiously sat upright. She kept expecting the crepe to fall off her skin, it was so lightly applied. Yvonne passed her a mirror, and with bright eyes, she watched Gaia over the rim of the glass.

Gaia looked at a young boy in the mirror, a tanned, round' faced boy with long lashes, pale lips, and a broad forehead. There was an awkwardness to his nose, as if he'd had it broken once, and there were faint shadows under his eyes, as if he hadn't been sleeping well. As she peered more closely, Gaia saw the seam edge of the crepe where it started on her chin, ran around the left perimeter of her lips, up her nose, under her left eye, and all across the top of her eyebrows to her right temple. Her own brown eyes peered out from between black lashes. She reached up gingerly, but Pearl stopped her hand.

"It's fragile," she said. "Don't touch it. And don't try to smile or it will buckle around your mouth."

"It's amazing," Gaia said, and saw in the mirror that her left cheek looked odd when she spoke. She would have to avoid talking, too, as much as she could.

"Well," Pearl said with a modest cough. "I think making you a little darker was a good idea. Here. Put some on your hands, too. And settle your hat on. Yvonne, is that rope ready?"

Pearl made Gaia take her coat off again, and stuffed the rope and an extra cloak of Pearl's for Gaia's mother into the back of Gaia's shirt. When Gaia's brown coat was on again, she looked even more like a round young boy who had just started his growth spurt. Pearl shook her head. "Your hands are all wrong," she said. "Too slender."

Just then Mace yelled from the doorway to the shop. "Pearl!" he called. "We're going to set up at the market. Where's my apprentice?"

Gaia's heart froze with fear for one instant, and then Pearl gave her fingers a quick, hard squeeze. She drew her to the front doorway.

"We'll be waiting for you here," Pearl whispered. Yvonne came forward for a hug, but Pearl held her back. "No, don't mess her," Pearl said in warning. "Take these," she said to Gaia. She thrust three little white cubes into Gaia's palm.

"Sugar?" Gaia asked, puzzled, stepping out and holding them toward the moonlight on her open palm. They were smaller and denser than sugar cubes, and Gaia looked back at Pearl curiously.

"They're not sugar. They're for sleep and pain. They work fast and they're powerful, so be careful."

Gaia slid them into the right pocket of her trousers, her mind racing to anticipate how they might be useful. "What are they? Are they for the prisoner in the tower? For Masister Khol?"

"Yes," she said. "Or for you, if-- Well, you can use your judgment."

Yvonne's young face was a pale blue in the shadowed door way. "They're all we have left over from Lila," she explained.

"Oh," Gaia said softly. She searched Pearl's face, unsure if she should take them.

"Go," Pearl urged her. "We don't need them." The older woman squinted toward where Mace and Leon, now dressed in Oliver's clothes, were waiting with a cart in the narrow lane. Oliver was out of sight.

Gaia spared one last glance for Pearl and Yvonne, who gave a little wave and a big smile, and then she hurried after the cart like a late, contrite apprentice.

Chapter 22 The Women of the Southeast Tower

THE MONUMENT LOOMED over the Square of the Bastion, a heavy, black presence against the predawn violet of the sky. Gaia's ears were full of the rattle of the cart as its broad wheels traversed the damp cobblestones, and beside her Leon's breath came in a steady rhythm as he and Mace pulled the cart toward the southeast tower. That was their goal: to be the cart nearest the tower when Masister Khol chanced by and needed a boy, any convenient, trustworthy boy, to carry her load up the tower steps. Gaia palmed the crown of her hat to push it down more steadily on her head, glancing forward under the brim. In her pocket, her fingertips curled around the small cubes of white powder Pearl had given her.

In a corner of the square, two guards stood by the great wooden door to the southeast tower of the Bastion. Gaia tried not to look at them. On the opposite side of the square was the familiar arch to the prison, and she avoided looking at that, too, hoping she'd never enter there again.

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