Birthmarked Page 40

"Come on, Mom. What else can I do?"

"It's all right, Gaia," her mother said.

But it wasn't all right. Gaia could see that. She massaged her mother's abdomen again, harder, and watched her mother's face crumple in pain. Gaia's guilt was an exquisite, piercing blade as she realized this was all her fault; if she hadn't tried to rescue her mother, if she'd left her in the tower, her mother would most likely be safely resting right now instead of hemorrhaging her lifeblood into the white towels.

"Let me go get you some help," Gaia said.

"No. Don't leave me."

"But this is all my fault. At least in the tower you were safe."

"You couldn't be more wrong. Now take care of this baby."

Gaia wiped back a tear with her knuckles and ripped off a narrow band of linen to tie off the baby's umbilical cord.

Her hands were shaking, clumsy, but her mother only smiled at her.

"Sorry, Mom."

"You re doing a fine job," her mother murmured. "Pack a fresh towel against me, there, and let me rest."

Gaia rolled a clean, soft towel between her mother's legs and tried to make her comfortable. She had practically forgot' ten where they were, or that anyone was looking for them, until she heard a sharp clatter and a noise in the hallway.

This is it, she thought. And she was glad. Someone would help them now. Someone would save her mother. She leaned her face down beside her mother's, shielding her weary body with her arm, and curving her hand over her mother s where she held the newborn. In this position, she heard the door open and knew someone was looking into the room. Inches away, her mother's eyes flashed to meet hers and held, keeping her silent.

There was a disgruntled noise. "Man," somebody said. "They better catch up on this laundry."

"Is it empty?" came another voice.

The first voice was receding. "It stinks. Close the door."

As the door clicked closed, Gaia blinked at her mother, amazed.

"Idiots," her mother murmured, smiling.

"Let me get them," Gaia said softly, pressing her mother's hand. "They can bring a doctor."

"No, Gaia. I don't want anybody else."

Gaia wrapped her fingers in the sleeve of her mother's robe. "Please, Mom," she whispered.

Her mother exhaled heavily and closed her eyes, still smiling. "I want you to name her Maya."

Gaia bit back a sob and tipped her forehead against her mother's shoulder. "That's a pretty name," she said, trying to sound calm. "Why Maya?"

"It means dream. She's my dream, all the things I never thought I'd see."

"Oh, Mom," Gaia said, her heart breaking with grief.

"Besides," her mother said with a little laugh. "It rhymes with Gaia. Your dad would like that."

Gaia felt her mom's fingers gently patting her hair, soothing. "Gome, Gaia. You've got to be strong."

Gaia sniffed and straightened up. Her mothers complexion had become impossibly wan, but her eyes were as vibrant as ever, even luminous in the diffused afternoon light of the little space. Gaia folded the towel more securely around little Maya s sleeping form. The skin of her mothers arm was strangely clammy and cool.

"Take care of her for me," her mother said. "Don 't let any thing hurt her."

Alarm shot along Gaia's nerves. "What do you mean?"

Her mother lifted a hand, and Gaia felt her cool fingertips against the skin of her left cheek. Somewhere during the birth, the rest of Gaia's mask had fallen away, and now her scar felt newly sensitive.

"I'm sorry about your face," her mother said.

Gaia felt a lump form in her throat and couldn't speak, but she closed her lips and shook her head, looking away.

"No," her mother said. "Look at me, Gaia. We thought it would save you. We never guessed how much you would suffer, in so many different ways. It was selfish, I know, but your father and I, after losing Arthur and Odin, we wanted so badly to keep you. The closer we came to the day we might lose you, the more we just couldn't take the chance, and it was the only way. Will you ever forgive us?"

Gaia swallowed thickly while loss and anguish warred in her heart.

"You hurt me on purpose?" she asked.

"Oh, darling. I'm so sorry. So very sorry."

Gaia struggled to grasp, in a moment, all that might have been different if shed never been scarred, if she'd had a chance to be advanced, if she'd grown up without her parents. And it was inconceivable to imagine life without her parents' daily love.

"It's okay. You did the right thing. Just what I would have wanted," she said. "Don't leave me, Mom."

Her mother's face contorted in a moment of pain, and then her features eased again. She looked almost peaceful. "I want to be with your father," she said softly. "And now you've come to take care of Maya. Keep her safe for me. Promise."

"Mom, please," Gaia pleaded. "You can't. Wait, I found Odin here in the Bastion. He's tall and blond and a soldier. Sergeant Bartlett. Did you ever see him? I discovered who he was just a few days ago, and he got away. He left the Enclave, and he hasn't been seen again. We need you. All of us do."

But her mother patted her hand. "Are you sure?"

"He has Dad's twitchy fingers. He likes to sing."

Her mother let out a faint laugh. "If only I could have seen him. That's all I wanted, to just see him once and know he was all right. They kept promising, if I behaved, I could see my boys, but they never let me." She stopped to blink sleepily. "So many mistakes we made."

Gaia dropped her head down upon her mother's chest, hugging her frail body tightly. "No, Mom. Please."

She could feel her mother's gentle hand on her hair, patting smoothly. "Such a good girl," her mother murmured. "So beautiful."

Gaia let out a sob, squeezing her eyes shut. This could not be happening. Her mother's chest went very still, and Gaia lifted her eyes to gaze at her ashen, quiet face. A pulse throbbed in her neck, and she took a last, deep breath. Gaia watched her, waiting, hoping for another breath that never came. She glanced down at her mothers legs, and then quickly away. Blood had saturated the towel and the skirt of her dress. Gaia searched her mother's face again, willing her to breathe, but her gaze was fixed on the window above, unseeing, and when the baby wiggled a tiny hand against her mother's cheek, she could no longer respond. The pale skin of her neck was even, pulseless.

"No," Gaia whispered, closing her eyes again. "What was I supposed to do?" she said, her voice ragged with pain. There must have been some way to save her mother, something different she might have done. "I need you, Mom," she croaked, smoothing her face and hair. "Please." Her fingers trembled, and her heart overflowed with grief. She leaned back against the wall and hugged her arms around herself, while her mother's still body slowly began to give up its warmth.

Chapter 24 A Perfectly Circular Pool

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, Gaia longed to sink her head down beside her mothers and simply stay there, giving up the fight. But when her bleary gaze fell upon her infant sister, she knew the darkness would have to wait. She couldn't bear to look at her mother 's face, or the tender, worn skin of her knuckles. She could not stay there, beside her mothers body, for long. The guards might come back, or even the people who regularly took care of the laundry might come to deal with the bins of dirty sheets and towels. Most pressing of all, the baby would soon need sustenance, or she, too, would die.

Gaia shifted carefully away from her mother, and leaned over to gently lift the baby from her mothers lifeless arms.

"Hey, little sister," she whispered. Her mother had asked Gaia to take care of her, and she would. No matter what it took.

Maya was tiny in her hands, a wobbly parcel with solid weight but no coordination. Gaia wiped her as clean as she could and wrapped her securely in a clean white towel. She rested her on a pile of sheets, and then she looked down at her blood' stained trousers and jacket. No one would take her for a bakers apprentice in these anymore, but she had Pearl's cloak. She dropped the jacket in a laundry bin, followed by the last bits of mask from her face and the rope she'd never found a use for. She kept on the blue shirt, rolling up the cuffs to hide other smears of blood.

Quickly, she rolled up the legs of her trousers to the knees, and then she took one of the clean sheets and folded it in half. Ripping part of the seam for a tie, she wrapped the fabric around her waist to fashion a skirt and tied it tightly. It looked awful, but she could do nothing more, and at least it gave her the semblance of a skirt beneath Pearl's deep blue cloak. She picked up her sister and cradled her close.

Stepping to the window, she peered past the ghostly silhouette of her reflection to try to get her bearings. Clouds had moved in to obscure the afternoon sun. She gazed down at the solar panels on the roofs, seeing from their south-facing angles that she must be on the west side of the Bastion, far from the southeast tower and the school. She had no clear idea how to get out, or what to do once she did, but with a sort of numb urgency, she knew she had to try.

Gaia was keenly aware of her mother's body lying in a heap in the corner of the linen room, unnaturally still. When she was ready with the baby in her arms, she looked for a last time at her mother, and then bent down to cover her face with a clean towel. She couldn't say good-bye; the words lodged in her throat, but she knew this was the last time she'd ever be with her mother, and for a moment she slouched against the wall, overcome with grief. An invisible weight pressed in upon her from all sides, and she closed her eyes, unsuccessfully, against the tears.

Til try to be brave. She hugged her sister close and took in a deep, shuddering breath.

Then she turned away and pushed past the laundry bins to the door. She blinked hard, trying to concentrate and listen for noise outside the door. When she heard none, she pulled it open an inch, looking down the hallway. How can I do this? she wondered hopelessly. You must, came her own reply. She tip' toed stealthily to the end of the hall, fearing any second that another group of guards would come around the corner. And then she realized she was making a mistake: cowering was the last thing she should do if she hoped to escape detection. She must act like Masister Khol who strode with firm, unapologetic authority.

Drawing a deep breath, Gaia twitched the hood of her cloak forward and started down the hall at a steady clip. At the next staircase, she headed down, and when she'd passed several landings she arrived suddenly at a bright, sunny solarium with a high, arching, glass ceiling. It took her only an instant to recognize the French doors and realise that on the other side of them lay the foyer of the Bastion, where the grand double-staircase descended toward the main doors.

White, wooden arches framed the solarium, while the lush foliage of ferns and the gurgle of running water created an oasis of peace and rich beauty. The loveliness, contrasted with the horror of losing her mother, was almost more than she could bear. Gaia paused in an open archway, breathing in the fragrant, humid air and marveling sorrowfully that such a place could exist. Green leaves of every shape, colorful corollas, and tempting fruits spread in a vast array around her. Is this, she wondered, what the earth once was like? She was drawn irresistibly forward toward the sound of water and found, in the center of the solarium, a perfectly circular pool. Its serene surface reflected the undersides of the bordering ferns and a touch of sky. She'd never seen water used simply for beauty before, and it stirred a mix of resentment and awe inside her. She fingered a pale yellow bloom, dazzled by its fragile petals, and her gaze lifted to where a palm tree soared against the arching, glass paned ceiling. The water and energy needed to maintain this space defied her imagination.

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