Birthmarked Page 43

There was another noise behind them, closer this time.

"It's the reverse of my mothers code," she said urgently. "It's the information we need for the people outside the wall, people like my mom. And there will be formula for Maya there. We have to go!"

Leon took her arm and sped down the narrowest tunnel.

She gasped as hot wax spilled across her fingers and her candle went out.

"Sorry," he said.

"It's fine. Go ahead. I'll hold on again. Hurry."

She gripped his shirt again while he led the way with his candle. He veered left at another turn, and then, gradually, she had a sense that they were ascending. They passed the dried' out bones of a small animal, and then, just where the tunnel grew wider again, its condition became worse. Huge boulders tumbled in places where the ceiling had collapsed, leaving only narrow, jagged passages. Once Leon scrambled through first, leaving her in near darkness, and she passed the baby through a hole and climbed through after. Twice they stopped to listen for noises behind them, and all Gaia could hear was her rapid breath in the straining silence.

"What if they cut us off at the opening?" she asked.

"I don't know," Leon said.

In the dark, time lost meaning, and it seemed to her that she'd been scrambling forever over and around the twisted, ancient tunnels of the mine. Maya made tiny, plaintive noises, but rarely moved, and with only rare glimpses, Gaia had to trust that she was okay. Eventually, she thought she perceived a gray glow in front of her, and then they took another turn and she could see, far ahead and slightly higher, a reflection of gray light on the rock.

Leon blew out his candle, and they scrambled forward and upward. The tunnel narrowed again, turning, and the gray reflection expanded and grew brighter. The floor of the tunnel slanted upward as one great, uneven slab, with water trickling in its crevices. She had to crouch, bracing her free hand against the gritty stone wall, and Leon crawled ahead of her. They were in a natural cave, and when she turned around, she could see no evidence of the tunnel hidden behind. As they approached the light, the sound of water grew louder, into an echoing rush. The opening to the outside was hardly large enough to crawl through, and a tangle of roots and vines further concealed the opening. Through the roots, she saw a curtain of steady rain that poured loudly onto the hard ground, and beyond, barely discernable, the hunched, boxy outlines of hives.

"It's raining," she said in wonder.

It had been months since there had been any rain. Months! Rainwater transformed life outside the wall, like pure wealth falling from the sky. And the smell of it! She could taste the sweet moisture, as if the wet earth itself had become a spice.

"Leon, look," she said.

"I know," he whispered, his voice near her ear barely audible over the drone of the rain. He braced a hand on her shoulder in the tight space, and leaned toward the opening. "Let me check if anyone's out there. Wait a minute. I'll be right back," he said.

Before she could object, he was gone. A flash of lightning was followed closely by a sharp clap of thunder, and she jumped in her skin. The baby let out a tiny squawk of discontent. Gaia cradled her against her neck, wrapping the edge of her cloak around her as she supported the little warm head. A minute passed, and Gaia listened intently for the sound of a shot. Leon suddenly reappeared outside the opening.

"Don't do that again!" she yelled.

"Gaia! Quickly!" he said. "There's nobody's here. Come with me!"

She blinked as she crawled out into the dense rain, and by the time she scrambled to her feet she was deluged with water. She pulled at her cloak to cover the baby. Leon took her hand again, and they ran through the honey farm, passing between the hives and under the drenched trees. Lightning blazed the sky around them, and thunder crashed, stopping her pulse in her chest. She shrieked and let go of Leon to hold the baby more securely.

"Where do we go?" she asked, as they reached the edge of the farm.

"It's just ahead, a few meters," Leon said, yelling over the sound of the rain.

They ran down an alley and around a corner. Rain sloshed and poured around them, inundating Gaia's shoes. She could barely see the pavement in front of her, and the rushing tumult filled her ears.

Then Leon pulled her against him and pressed her hard against a wall. An overhang of low roof provided a few scant millimeters of shelter and she licked her lips, tasting rain. She glanced down at the baby in her arms and saw her sisters mouth pushed into a tiny pout.

"We're here," he said. "This is the Nursery."

She gazed along the length of the wall and upward to where the rain slanted against the upper windows. The Nursery was a small, white, two-story house, with dark green shutters and four window boxes of geraniums that had streams of rain pouring from the corners down into the street. Gaia was surprised. For some reason, she'd expected something larger, more institutional, but this looked almost friendly. The area where they stood contained several tall bins, and the distinct odor of bleach and soiled diapers mixed with the scent of rain.

"How did you and Fiona get in to see the babies?" She asked.

Leon pointed to a balcony that jutted beneath an upstairs window. "They're up there."

A flimsy trellis lined the wall, and Gaia gulped as she imagined climbing up there with Maya in one arm. "You climbed? Were you insane?"

"Fiona did," Leon said. He tugged her wet sleeve. "Come on. There's a back door."

She peered to the right as another curtain of rain washed down the street toward them, pummeling the wall and the ground and rattling on the overhang above them. He pulled her around the wall, pushing through a wooden gate to a narrow backyard. A couple of chickens let up a squawking noise from a coop along the back wall. Faintly, above the noise of the rain and the chickens, she heard a baby's cry. Leon led her around another corner to where a couple of steps led to a back door.

"I'll go in," he said. "I know where the office is. I'll see what I can find."

"We're staying together," she said. When he turned to face her, clearly ready to argue, she wiped the rain out of her eyes. "That's not negotiable," she added.

"You can't, Gaia," he said. "It's suicide. If anyone recognizes you, they'll call the guard."

"What about you? Aren't you wanted, too?" she demanded.

"I can talk my way out of things."

His arrogant certainty almost made her laugh.

"Really. This I'd like to see," she said.

"Masister Khol might be in there."

"I left her drugged in the tower."

"But that was hours ago," he argued.

Gaia had no idea how much time had gone by, but she knew she couldn't stand there in the rain with her baby sister a moment longer. She gripped the metal knob of the door and turned it, surprised when the door was unlocked. Waiting for no further invitation, she stepped inside and found herself in a dim, neat kitchen.

Leon came in behind her and closed the door, shutting out the deafening rush of the rain. In the vacancy of sound, a drip from the faucet was surprisingly audible. The counters and table were clear, except for a colander of beans that stood beside the sink. A braid of garlic hung from a hook by the window. The far wall was made of stone, with an inlaid oven and fire' place, and a wide, stone hearth. The room was pleasantly warm, and Gaia saw a small fire had been lit in the grate. A row of shallow boxes had been built in along one counter, and little blankets rested, some rumpled, inside them. Gaia's gaze focused in on a dozen glass baby bottles that stood drying upside down on a rack of spokes.

"Hello?" came a woman's voice. The sound was weary, but unalarmed, and her voice carried with a high, flutelike quality. "Franny, is that you?"

Leon moved toward the sound and at that moment, a young woman in a red dress came through the door, holding a baby against her shoulder and patting its back with firm, steady fingers. She stopped, obviously surprised.

"Can I help you?" the woman asked Leon. She has hardly more than a girl, only a few years older than Gaia, with full, rosy cheeks and plump hands. Her gaze scanned quickly from Leon to Gaia, and her expression softened when her eyes fell on the baby. "My name's Rosa," she said. "Have we met?"

"Is Masister Khol in?" Gaia asked.

Rosa inspected her wet garb curiously. "No. What happened to you? And what are you doing letting a baby get all wet?" She set the child in her arms in one of the crib boxes on the counter and curled a loose lock of her black hair back neatly behind her ear. Then she reached for Maya. "Come here, sweetheart," she crooned.

When Gaia instinctively backed away, Rosa looked up in confusion. She turned for a moment to Leon, and then her expression sobered. "You re Leon Quarry. Or Grey. Right?"

Leon said nothing. Rosa's gaze flicked again back and forth between him and Gaia, and then she looked down at Maya. Gaia was about to speak, but Leon shook his head in warning.

The young woman cleared her throat and looked again at Leon. "Well," she said, and her voice was slightly lower, with a hint of knowing. "There's a first for everything."

Before Gaia realized what he was doing, he reached for a clay pitcher on the counter and lifted it in a quick, heavy arc to land against Rosa's skull. The impact caused an uncompromising thud, and he caught her as she began to fall. Rosa didn't let out the least bit of noise, not even a grunt of pain.

Gaia's eyes rounded with shock. "Is that what you call talking your way out of things?"

He shuffled Rosa's limp form to the ground and grabbed an apron from the back of a chair. Astonished, Gaia watched as he rapidly bound Rosa's wrists behind her back.

"Stay here," he said, picking up the pitcher again.

"But what are you doing?"

Already he was crossing through the door Rosa had entered, and a moment later, she heard his quick footsteps mounting the stairs. There was a brief cry, and then another sound of a body being dragged. Gaia was staring at the captive on the floor, trying to see if she were still breathing. Rosa's eyes were closed and her face was pallid in the firelight, but her lips were open and her chest moved.

Leon came down the stairs again and pivoted into the kitchen. "That's all of them," he said. "We only have a few minutes until one of them comes around. You get supplies for your sister upstairs, and I'll go through the office. I have an idea. Gaia?"

She dragged her eyes away from Rosa and hugged her sister tighter.

"Did you have to do that?" she whispered.

He tilted his face, regarding her intently and without apology. She realized it shouldn't have surprised her how swiftly he'd acted. He was in the guard, trained. He'd always been capable of decisive violence.

"I'm sorry," she said.

He looked over his shoulder, listening, and then he took a step toward her and spoke more gently. "Do you want to take care of your sister or not?"

His reminder reawakened her sense of urgency. She dropped Pearl's soaked cloak on the back of a chair. She looked briefly at the baby in the crib on the counter to see it wasn't fussing, and then, side-stepping Rosa, she slipped out of the room and hurried up the stairs. Leon headed for the office.

Little natural light reached the narrow, steep stairs. At the top, two doors stood open on either side. The room on her left was darker, with a row of cribs. She turned toward some faint, indefinable sound in the right-hand room and stepped into a small, clean, low ceilinged nursery. A faint, fragrant scent of lavender soap and cotton laced the air. Rows of small cribs lined the walls, side by side, more than a dozen, but Gaia saw that only a handful were occupied by babies, all sleeping. What are the chances of that, she thought. Did they know how to keep infants on a schedule here? Rain streamed down two large, multipaned windows that let in the cool gray light. A flash of lightning flickered outside, followed shortly by a muffled boom of thunder, but the weather only emphasised how safe and warm it felt inside.

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