Birthmarked Page 38

The other woman smiled and pushed her hair back. "You're a miracle."

While Sephie slid off the lid of the teapot and took the tin from Masister Khol to shake some tea inside, Masister Khol turned to the third woman.

"How have you been, Julia?" Masister Khol asked.

"I've had better jobs. This is a bore, mostly," Julia said. She was rebraiding her hair with deft fingers. "I thought she was supposed to be a danger to herself and everyone around her."

Sephie's eyebrows lifted once in what Gaia guessed was dismissive contempt for Julia. Sephie was laying out three cups and saucers before the fire when she looked again at Gaia, and her gaze narrowed suddenly.

"You, there," Sephie said.

Gaia's heart stopped. "Yes, Masister?" She kept her voice low.

Sephie frowned at her and Gaia waited anxiously She steeled herself to keep her gaze steady on the older doctor, and when Sephie silently angled her face to her left, Gaia resisted the urge to mirror her motion.

Sephie's eyebrows lifted, she winced briefly, and then she made a clicking noise in the back of her throat. "I had a helpful assistant once," she said lightly. Then her voice changed. "Make yourself useful, boy," Sephie said as she poured. "Pass these around. And then you should go."

Gaia's heart slammed on again in double time. Sephie must recognize her, but she wasn't initiating any alarm. Why not? Gaia suddenly remembered what Cotty had once said about Sephie: she did whatever was easiest. But what would be easiest for Sephie now, to raise the alarm against Gaia, or to wait and see what evolved? Gaia didn't know. She fingered the small white cubes in her pocket, wondering how quickly they would dissolve in hot water and, more importantly, how quickly they would work.

"You heard her," Masister said sharply. "Don't stand there like an idiot. Are you deaf?"

"He probably wants some sunflower seeds," Julia said, giggling. "I know I do."

The bathroom door started to open. "Wait, Bonnie," Sephie said, rising from beside the fire. "Let me help you."

When Sephie reentered the bathroom, Gaia knew she couldn't delay. Stepping near the fire, she picked up the first cup and surreptitiously dropped a white cube of powder inside. She handed this to Julia, and then repeated the maneuver for Masister Khol. As her mother reappeared, supported by Sepbie, Gaia turned her back to the camera and dropped the third cube into the last cup of tea.

Gaia s mother looked more exhausted than ever, and she sat on the edge of the nearest bed, her hands gripping the edge of the mattress as if to keep her balance. Gaia came forward hesitantly, holding Sepbie s teacup. When her mother reached for it, Gaia froze, withholding the cup until her mother looked up, questioning.

"No, Bonnie," Sephie said, taking the cup from Gaia s tight, trembling fingers. "The last thing you need right now is a diuretic."

Gaia almost laughed with relief.

Her mother was watching Gaia in a pulled manner. "Do I know you?" she asked her daughter.

Gaia clicked her jaw shut, shaking her head.

Sephie laughed. "You think you know every child in the Enclave just because you saw a few of them for an hour when they were born," she said. Then she turned to Gaia. "You've had your visit with our pregnant celebrity. Now, I told you to go."

Gaia understood: Sephie was allowing her a harmless glimpse of her mother, and nothing more. Gaia looked in alarm at Masister Khol, but she was calmly sipping her tea as if she had no interest in Gaia whatsoever. Despair shot through her, and she looked desperately at her mother. Her mother's head was hanging wearily.

Gaia's mind raced. "If she can't have tea, should I get her some water, then?" Gaia asked, keeping her voice low.

Sephie looked up, her eyes narrowing cautiously. Then, as if making a decision, she nodded. "Here's gallantry," she said, and pointed to a cup on the shelf. "Fetch her some."

While Gaia took the cup into the bathroom to get water from the tap, she tried to think how else to delay her departure. The women were talking of news outside the tower. Julia's voice was light, with occasional laughter, and Masister Khol's tones were lower and steadier. Water rushed into the little metal cup. If she could find a way to get her mother out while the women continued acting normally, she might buy time before anyone behind the security camera realized any thing was wrong.

"Pass me that blanket, will you, Joyce?" Sephie said to Masister Khol. "She's tired again. I think what she really needs is more iron, by the way. Not to mention a little sunshine. Bed rest doesn't mean she has to lie indoors every second."

"Do you want to tell the Protectorat or shall I?" Masister Khol asked.

Gaia came through the bathroom doorway with the cup of water.

"If he came up here, I'd tell him myself," Sephie said. "Since he doesn't, it'll have to be you." She dropped the blanket around Bonnie's shoulders, and with a pale hand, Bonnie drew it closer across her chest.

"I'm a little sleepy myself," Julia said, with a yawn and a stretch. "What I wouldn't give to walk around the market for a bit."

"Why don't you take another snooze?" Masister Khol said dryly.

Julia appeared to miss the sarcasm. "No, no," Julia said, laying her head on her white pillow. "I want to help Sephie." She tucked her feet up onto the bed and her face went slack with sleep.

"Well, of all the lazy nerve," said Masister Khol. A moment later, her head tilted back to rest against the back of her chair. Gaia watched in grim astonishment as her eyes began to close. Her teacup tipped, spilling liquid into her lap, but Masister Khol was so deeply asleep she didn't notice.

"You viper," Sephie said softly to Gaia. "I kept up your cover. I let you have your little visit."

Gaia watched Sephie stumble toward her rocking chair and grip the armrest as she sat heavily. She lifted her heavy lidded eyes to Gaia.

"Take her, then," Sephie said. "At least they can't blame me."

She was asleep.

Chapter 23 Maya

WHAT'S HAPPENING?" Gaias mother asked, a new alertness in her eyes.

Her hands flying, Gaia bunched the extra blanket and a pillow into a heap on the bed and threw another blanket over them to fake a sleeping form.

"Quickly, mother," Gaia said, gripping her arm firmly and guiding her upward. "We have no time at all."

"Gaia?" her mother asked, her voice lifting in wonder.

"Please," Gaia whispered urgently, wrapping an arm around her waist and practically carrying her toward the door. "We have to get out. Now. Before they see."

"Oh, Gaia!" her mother said breathlessly. "I can't believe it's you!"

Gaia wrenched open the handle, pulled her mother out to the landing, and shut the door. The maneuver from bed to landing had taken no more than six seconds, and if anyone in surveillance had happened to look away during that instant, they might not see that anything was wrong with the people in the tower cell-- not until they looked closely at the women and saw they weren't talking, but sleeping.

"Oh, Mom," she said, hugging her as hard as she dared. She inhaled the scent of exhaustion and desolation that lingered on her mothers skin, while her mother s bony, swollen body shivered under the thin fabric of her blue dress.

"I can't believe it's you," her mother said again. Her narrow arms pressed around her daughter, trembling. Then she peered into her face, gazing in wonder. She touched Gala's cheek. "What happened to your face?"

"Be careful. It's a mask. Quickly, we have to leave." She drew her mothers body alongside her own and held her firmly around the waist as they started down the steps.

"I'm so weak," her mother whispered. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Gaia said, her mind racing. She couldn't take her mother out the door she'd come in with Masister Khol because the guards would immediately be suspicious. But she had to get to Leon or Mace Jackson somehow. Her mother stumbled, and when Gaia caught her, she groaned.

"Are you all right?" Gaia asked.

"I've had some spotting," her mother said. "I've been on bed rest. This is the most exercise I've had in I don't know how long."

"How did this happen?" Gaia asked, helping her down another step.

Her mother gave a faint laugh. "In the usual way. A lifetime ago."

"But, I mean, it's Dad's, right?" Gaia asked. She had to ask. "Why didn't you tell me you were pregnant?"

As they approached an oblong window, her mother gripped the sill and the sunlight dropped on her pale hand, giving it a translucent blue color as she braced herself against the darker stone. Gaia couldn't believe how small and fragile her mother looked.

"I'd had so many miscarriages," her mother said, her voice thin. "I didn't hardly dare to hope myself. But we were about to tell you. Your father was so excited. It feels like a lifetime ago now. And then, when we were arrested, the baby saved my life. Your father-- "

A clattering noise rose from below. Gaia clutched protectively at her mother and could feel her trembling. Her mothers arm was slung around Gaia's neck, and she silently pressed her face against Gaia's right cheek.

A peal of laughter echoed up the tower staircase. "I can't believe you!" came a merry, girlish voice. "What kind of a present is that?"

There was the sound of a scuffle, and then a man's quiet laughter, and then a sharp, jingling noise.

"I mean it!" the young woman said again playfully.

There was an indecipherable grumble, and then a low voice: "You'll be the death of me, Rita. I swear."

"Shhh!" Rita said. And then, "Okay. Now."

There was a shuffling sound of footsteps, and then a thud of a door closing, and then silence. Gaia was certain she'd recognized the voice of the pretty girl Rita who had tried to warn her not to get involved with the executed couple. Her mother bent over suddenly and gasped.

"Oh, no," she groaned.

"What is it?" Gaia whispered.

Her mother turned beseeching eyes on her. "Leave me, Gaia. Leave me here. Hurry down and you can escape." She slid her pale, blue-veined hand under the curve of her belly.

"No," Gaia protested, resisting panic. Her mother couldn't be going into premature labor, not here, not now. She held her mother more closely than ever. "I'm not leaving you. We'll find a way."

Her mother came down a few more steps with her, then a half dozen more, and then Gaia felt her sag. Sweat broke out on Gaia s forehead under the mask, loosening it. What am I going to do? she wondered desperately. Her mother slowly sat on one of the steps, lowering her head into her hands and holding very still, as if concentrating in pain.

Gaia couldn't just deliver her mother's baby there on the steps. It could take hours, and soldiers would be coming as soon as one of the women in the tower above recovered enough to raise an alarm.

"Should I take you back up to Sephie?" Gaia asked. "Mom?"

Her mother shook her head. It was hardly a definitive answer, and Gaia was torn, trying to think what would be best for her mother.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm not going back," her mother said.

Below, Gaia could see the door that Rita and her boyfriend must have come through. It could only lead into the Bastion, to one of the upper floors, she guessed, since it was the first door they'd come to. It would lead them farther from freedom, but Gaia didn't see any other choice.

She hurried down the steps to touch the latch, and it lifted easily. She peeked out the door and saw it led to a hallway much like the kind she'd traversed on her way to the yellow room. The peaceful yellow walls and runner carpet looked deceptively welcoming.

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