Birthmarked Page 47

"Leon," she said. "I don't know what you want from me."

In answer, he took one more step, until the rim of his hat came just above her forehead. She knew that if she looked up, his eyes would be near.

"Who said I want something?" he asked, and took off his hat.

She could feel heat rising in her cheeks, and still she kept her gaze down. He closed the distance between them and slid his arms around her and the baby. When his warm lips touched the sensitive skin of the scar on her temple, she felt something give away inside her. She angled her face, bringing her mouth nearer to his, and then his lips touched hers in the lightest, most tender kiss. She inhaled a quick breath, and he kissed her again. An ache rose in her throat, and she lifted her chin, meeting his lips more directly. Outside, another loud spattering of huge drops fell on the bushes and sidewalk. Once she had wondered if anyone would ever kiss her, and if she would know what to do. Now she could hardly think at all. She felt Leohs hand shift to the back of her hair, and then his kiss deepened. She felt the world tip, and then her sister gave another hiccup.

Gaia pulled back. Leon was watching her under heavy eye' lids. "You are so, so sweet," he said tenderly.

"You re not supposed to kiss me," she said. She was surprised at how low her voice had become.

"I beg to disagree." His lips touched hers again.

She struggled to focus. "We have to get out of the Enclave."

His eyebrows lifted. "Right now?"

She pulled back more decisively, and he loosened his arms to let her go. "It's stopped raining," she said. "This is our chance."

He glanced regretfully out the door. "You don't like me after all."

"Leon!" She socked him in the arm.

He smiled crookedly. "Okay. Just checking." Then he reached to help her settle baby Maya back in the gift bag. The paper was a thick, durable type, but it was definitely getting crinkled from handling. Gaia watched carefully as he repositioned the bag in his left arm. She wished it would look right for her to carry it herself, but it was logical for a gentleman to offer to carry it for her.

She fetched his hat from where it had dropped to the floor. "Here," she said. "There's a basic problem with our plan, you know. When we head toward the gate, we'll be going the wrong way, away from the party."

"You re getting picky." He put on his hat.

Gaia slid her fingers into his right elbow and before she knew it, he dipped near for another soft kiss on her cheek. "I wish we had more time, Gaia," he said.

She nodded, and passed with him through the doorway.

Chapter 27 Trust

WITH HER HAND IN HIS ELBOW, Gaia and Leon walked down the wet streets, winding their way ever closer to the wall. When they came upon a group of soldiers, Gaia instinctively hesitated, but Leon drew her smoothly along, barely looking at them, and though she kept expecting every instant to be stopped, the guards gave them only a cursory glance.

Gaia exhaled in relief when they turned the next corner.

"See?" Leon said.

The sky had grown dark with nightfall, but an eerie luminosity glowed ahead of them as if a surfeit of white light was bouncing up to reflect off the low hung clouds.

"They must have the wall lit up," Leon said. "So the surveillance cameras won't miss anything."

"Are there cameras tracking us here?"

"There are cameras trained at most streetlamps," he said. "We've probably been picked up a half a dozen times already."

"So are we tricking them?" she asked.

"I don't know. They might just be waiting to pick us up by the wall."

They walked down another wet street and crossed to a narrow lane where the shop awnings reached out over the side' walks. Drips fell from the awnings, and Gaia ducked her head each time they passed beneath one.

"How's the gift?" she asked.


They passed a second group of soldiers that appeared as unconcerned as the first, and Gaia began to feel some hope. But as they rounded another corner, she heard the sound of foot' steps behind them.

"Are they following us?"

"Don't look back," Leon said.

Gaia kept walking, turning with Leon onto a wider street that descended in a wide, gentle arc toward the south gate. White storefronts, streaked gray by the rain, lined the street, and street' lamps cast paths of reflections in the wet cobblestones. From some apartment above, the spicy scent of curried stew mixed with the smell of rain, and tauntingly reminded her that the rest of the world was going on with routine dinner preparations while she might well be walking her last steps. Gaia stretched her stride to avoid a puddle. There were guards on the parapet of the wall and in front of the gates, but the doors of the gate were wide open. Gaia even had a glimpse of Wharfton through the open archway, a row of drab, gray houses, wet and hunched against the night. There was motion out there, people passing by.

"It's a trap," Gaia whispered. "They're waiting for us."

"Keep steady," Leon said.

At that moment, a couple of men in white came out of a doorway on the left. They glanced curiously in Leon and Gaia's direction, and then one of the men stopped. He lifted his hand in a brief wave.

"Hey! Grey!" he called. "I didn't realize you were going to the party. You've been far too reclusive lately."

"We have to go!" Gaia whispered.

But Leon released her and held out a hand to shake with the two men. "How've you been? We thought we'd get a look at the fireworks from the wall," he said.

"Are they still having the fireworks with the rain?"

"That's the plan." Leon said.

The men were looking curiously at Gaia. She kept her face turned toward Leon so they wouldn't see the scarred side of her face.

"You remember my friend Lucy Blair," Leon lied smoothly. "From archery class. This is Mort Phillips and Zack Bittman."

The men looked surprised, but they offered their hands to shake. "Of course!" the first one said.

"Nice to see you," Gaia said shyly.

"Are they really going to let you up on the wall?" Mort asked. "Looks like they're busy with something. Have you heard anything about fugitives?"

"Nothing lately," Leon said casually. "Good to see you. Let's catch up at the party."

"Sounds good," Mort said. He pointed a finger at Leon. "I still have that book you loaned me."

"Forget about it. I knew you'd never give it back," Leon said, his voice droll.

The men laughed and started up the road. Leon offered his elbow again, and Gaia slid her fingers into the corner of his arm.

"Do you know everybody?" she whispered.

He gave her a smile but his eyes were watchful. "Yes."

He's a far better actor than I could ever be, she thought. The guards behind them had stopped during Leon's conversation with his friends, and they had their heads together now. The guards down below had turned uncertainly toward their leader, a tall, white-haired man with a distinctive Adam's apple.

"Even Lanchester?" Gaia asked.


"I know the head guard, Sergeant Lanchester," she said.

They were almost upon the gate now, almost near enough to run through. Gaia thought her heart was going to beat out of her chest. The guards, more decisive now, were lifting their rifles. The ones on the top of the wall already had theirs cocked and pointed at Gaia and Leon.

"Do you trust me?" Leon asked.


She did. Implicitly. She met his intense, searching gaze with absolute certainty.

"Then take this," he said, and passed her the gilded gift bag with her sister inside. In the next instant, he grabbed her left arm and jerked it up behind her, twisting her hard up against him, and with the other hand, he bared a knife before her chin. She let out a shriek and instinctively struggled, desperately clutching her sister.

"Let me through or I'll kill her," Leon called.

"Let her go," Sgt. Lanchester called.

The men were moving into the archway to block the exit, their guns aimed at Leon and Gaia. They closed one of the massive doors.

"Clear out of the way!" Leon said. He wrenched her arm upward painfully and she let out another scream.

"Stop!" she said. "Oh, please! Stop!" And then she was silent because the knife was biting into her throat.

"Move!" Leon said again, edging closer to the archway.

"Step back!" Sgt. Lanchester said to his men. "Don't fire! Don't risk killing the girl! Gaia, is that really you?"

She was too afraid to speak. Leon was half carrying, half jerking her toward the great open gateway, and she was terrified that she would drop her sister. Already she was certain the bag was ripping. Leon jerked her arm again, and she gasped out as pain shot up her left shoulder. Sgt. Lanchester was shifting closer, his gun aimed at Leon s head. Leon held Gaia as a shield before him, and still edged toward the gate.

"Just let her go," Sgt. Lanchester said, his voice deliberately calm. "She never did anything to you. Just let her go, and we'll talk about this."

"Don't get any closer," Leon said. "Put up your gun."

But Sgt. Lanchester came even closer, and his pistol was leveled at them. Gaia could see down the black of the barrel.

"Don't shoot!" she begged. She felt tears brimming her eyes. She didn't think she could bear the pain in her shoulder any longer. She could feel her grip on her sister loosening, and still Leon was jerking her toward the archway.

"Please, Leon," she whispered. "You're hurting-- " she gasped again as another twist of agony ripped through her, and then she closed her eyes as her head began to spin with pain.

"Let her go!" Lanchester said again.

As she felt a minute yielding in Leon's grip, she opened her eyes and was stunned and to see they'd reached the archway. They were practically through the door. Practically free! He still held her pinned against him, his cheek alongside her ear, his knife at her throat. For an impossibly long moment, her hope was as intense as her raw pain.

"Run," Leon said softly.

She didn't understand.

He released her completely, pushing her stumbling out of the Enclave. She took half a dozen running steps before she realized he wasn't with her. She turned around and saw him swinging the door closed. With himself still inside.

"No!" Gaia said. "Leon!"

She stumbled back toward the door, but through the narrowing gap she saw a rifle butt crack hard into the back of Leon s head, and he was falling. For one, unblinking instant, Gaia couldn't think at all, and then she turned away from the lights and the wall. She gripped the ripping bag with her baby sister to her chest and ran blindly.

Chapter 28 Returned Property

AS ANGRY VOICES from the top of the wall followed after her, Gaia ran tripping into a crowd of people. They called after her, too, reaching out for her, but she pulled away and ran. There were groups of people everywhere in the streets, sitting in lines along the curbs and on stools they'd brought outside. She nearly fell over a group of children, and their parents shouted at her as well. It was bizarre, surreal, and she couldn't pause to try to make sense of it. All she could do was keep to the darkness, avoiding any lights that might expose her to the surveillance system, and run as fast as possible. Her left arm was still limp with pain and almost useless. A shrill, interior screaming de' railed any normal thought in her mind and kept her fixated on the last glimpse she'd had of Leon falling, unconsious or dead.

"He can't be dead," she whispered.

She stopped to catch her breath and braced herself against a building. A light exploded in the sky and then a loud pop came from behind her. The crowd around her broke into a satisfied u Ooh!" She turned in amazement to look back in the direction of the Enclave, and saw a firework disintegrating in the foggy sky above the tower. As a second firework exploded, she realized finally what was happening: the celebration of Evelyn s birthday had gone on, uninterrupted, even as she and Leon had been scrambling to save their lives.

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