Promised Page 10

It was a stone-walled room with no furniture, and at first, she thought it was empty. A drain, covered with a black grate, lay in the center of the floor, which was damp from recent washing. The air smelled faintly of wet stone and cleanser. Above, two barred windows let in the cool light of the late afternoon, and she saw, hanging from the ceiling, a long black chain, ending in a pair of cuffs just below her eye level. On the far wall, loosely coiled on a hook, was a black whip.

The chilling simplicity of the cell pierced to some primal, unreasoning core of her and ignited vicarious pain: this was the exact place where Leon had been whipped, where they’d cut off the upper knuckle of his ring finger. She pressed back to the farthest corner of the cell, but there was no escaping the nightmare.

As silent echoes of Leon’s pain barraged her and she heard the whip sting into his back, she covered her ears and crouched down on her heels, curling into a tight ball. Not Leon, she pleaded, and flinched. He’d never fully told her. He’d never explained the details of how he’d gotten his scars. So how did she know, how could she feel it now herself?

She lifted her chin for a big breath and in the top corner of the cell, she saw a small white box with a red pinpoint of light. A camera. She was being watched, just as Leon once must have been watched, and even at this moment, someone knew she was sitting here, unglued, prey to her own imagination.

“Why are you doing this to me?” she whispered. “I haven’t done anything wrong.” If the Protectorat could treat her like this, knowing she was the ruler of her people, which he must have learned from her scouts, there was nothing to stop him from being even worse to her people. I’ve already failed, she thought.

She folded her fingers over the bandage on her arm, squeezing. Why did they take her blood? What had they injected into her? Her gaze returned to the chains, black and motionless, and a fly buzzed slowly around the metal, circling higher, as if seeking a trace of old meat. Again Gaia pictured Leon there, suffering because he’d protected her. Because his father hated him and could hurt him again. She cringed, pressing her hands to her face.

“He’s all right,” she said aloud, to make it true. “He’s not here. He’s all right.”

She struggled to remind herself that no one was hurting her right now. No one was wielding the whip. Her only torture was her own terror, and that was all in her mind, if she could only stop it. She took a deep, ragged breath and tried to draw on the inner strength she’d learned as the Matrarc. She strove to visualize the marsh back in Sylum with its calming blues and soothing greens, and the sweetness of the wind on her lips.

When she finally heard a noise beyond the door, she listened, attentive, and nearly cried with relief when a click came in the lock.

She pushed herself to her feet, keeping her hands on the wall.

The door opened, and Mabrother Iris stood on the other side. Dressed in his customary white, his urbane appearance contrasting sharply with the rough hallway, the man seemed completely at ease, as if accustomed to visiting V cell. The overhead light glared in the lenses of his tinted glasses, concealing his eyes. In his arms, he cradled a small, white animal with a pale snout: a baby pig.

“Had enough, my dear?” he asked.

She wanted to puke. “Take me to the Protectorat.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “It is so, so tempting to leave you here, just as you are. You’re far more satisfying to deal with than Leon ever was. Or your mother. You care so much more, like a finely tuned instrument. I can’t decide which one. A viola, maybe.”

She could feel him wanting her to beg him to release her. She wiped at her face, feeling the smudges of tear tracks.

“Just let me out,” she said. “You’ve had your fun.”

“A taste of it,” he agreed.

“The Protectorat didn’t order me here, did he?” she said. She could not believe how odious the small man was to her, with his gray hair and slumped shoulders. “This was your idea.”

“Naturally, but we had to keep you somewhere while we waited.”

“For what?”

A banging noise came from the corridor and she flinched in alarm.

Mabrother Iris smiled slightly. “Your blood work. I felt it would be wise also to remind you who’s in charge here, especially considering your past record with us. It’s a very poor record. The Protectorat would prefer to deal with you himself, but cross the line, and he’ll pass you along to me. I get results. Are we clear on that?”

Gaia glanced again at the whip. “Is that what happened with Leon?”

“Leon was a very special case.” Mabrother Iris stepped back and gestured in four guards. “Tie her hands,” he said. “We won’t need another gag, will we, my dear?”

She shook her head. Strong hands pulled her arms together before her, and she winced as the strap was bound tightly around her wrists again.

They left V cell, and at the end of the hall, turned down a staircase. At the bottom, a musty, narrow tunnel led farther down, and caged bulbs came on automatically as they progressed single file. In places, the guards ducked to avoid the low ceiling. Wooden joists bracketed the walls and ceiling, reminding her of the old mine tunnels she’d traveled once with Leon, and at last they came around another corner to an old door.

The quality of the air changed when Mabrother Iris shoved open the door to a small, private wine cellar. Black bottles had turned pale under a coating of fine gray dust that conveyed not neglect, but precious wealth. In the opposite corner, a staircase, cleanly swept and bordered by a gleaming wooden banister, ascended upward.

Gaia knew without being told that they were under the Bastion now.

“That’s convenient,” she said. “To have a secret link between the seat of government and a torture cell.”

“You’d be surprised how convenient,” Mabrother Iris agreed, discounting her irony. “On we go. Marquez, see that she doesn’t trip.”

The youngest guard, a stout, short man with pale eyebrows and hair, guided her elbow and stayed beside her up several flights. At the top, Gaia looked down a long hallway, recognizing the tall ceiling and patterned carpet that ran its length. They’d reached the second floor of the Bastion, and if memory served, the headquarters of the Enclave was ahead on her right.

“Marquez, remain,” Mabrother Iris said, opening the door. “The rest of you may go. After you, my dear.” He gestured Gaia in before him, and with a sense of foreboding, she walked into the familiar room.

The four tall windows looked out on the Square of the Bastion, where evening sunlight sharply illuminated one tapering side of the obelisk. Just as before the desk with the glowing screen-top still dominated the room, with upholstered chairs and small tables in groupings to her right. The air smelled fragrantly of tea that she knew would never be offered to her. The only thing missing was the canary’s cage, which had been replaced by a low glass box containing a blanket and paper shavings. Mabrother Iris leaned over to put the piglet inside, and it snuffed into the blanket.

As a man turned from the window, Gaia was face-to-face with the Protectorat, her future father-in-law. His salt-and-pepper hair was trimly cut, and his black mustache was shorter then he’d previously worn it. His white suit gleamed, and his trousers fell crisply to shiny black shoes.

She measured him in wary silence. Knowing Leon more closely as she did now, she discovered her feelings for the Protectorat had gained secret layers. She had already distrusted and feared him, but now, on Leon’s behalf, she resented him for his failings as a father, too. It somehow made him more human, but in the worst sense.

The Protectorat did not smile. His cool eyes scanned her trenchantly from head to toe and back up again.

“The blood work?” he asked.

“As we’ve hoped,” Mabrother Iris said. “In every possible way. It’s a miracle. She’s even O negative.” He stepped to the computer desk and touched his fingers over the surface. “Dr. Hickory checked everything twice. He’s ecstatic.”

“What did you test me for?” Gaia asked.

“You carry the anti-hemophilia gene,” the Protectorat said calmly. “Like your mother did.”

The information at first confused her, and then fury coursed through her. He’d mention her mother so casually, as if she’d been nothing more than an experiment to him. “You killed her,” she said. “You confined her until she was so weak and sick at heart she couldn’t live!”

The Protectorat crossed the room, took the strap that confined her, and coiled it around his hand. She tried to withdraw, but he drew her wrists inexorably against his chest. With his other hand, he reached toward her face, and when she ducked away, he took her right ear and pinched inward with his thumbnail. The pain was so sharp that Gaia gasped, cringing, but trying to twist away was impossible.

“Actually, I believe you had the honor of killing her,” the Protectorat said. “We were caring for a fragile pregnant woman as best as we could. Feel that?”


“You sure?”

The pain increased, piercing and radiating.

“Yes! Please, stop!” she said, gasping.

“You will not speak rudely to me,” he said.

“I’m sorry!”

“I didn’t hear you.”

“I’m sorry, Mabrother!” she repeated. “I’m sorry!”

He released her abruptly, and Gaia lifted her hands to her pulsing ear, feeling blood where he’d gouged into her tender skin. Her heart was racing, and a rushing noise filled her head. The Protectorat took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped blood from his fingertips, and held out the handkerchief to her.

She had to step near to him again to take it, and as she did so, she found she was shaking, so thoroughly intimidated she was. Her episode in V cell had shaved away all her reserves, and now she, the Matrarc of New Sylum, had been reduced to a frightened girl in a matter of minutes.

“And what do you say when a gentleman hands you a handkerchief?” he prompted her.

“Thank you, Mabrother,” she said softly, and pressed the white cloth to her ear.

He regarded her dispassionately. “What’s this about you bringing my son back?”

She was too rattled to reply. She was still trying to figure out the significance of the anti-hemophilia gene. It even seemed like they’d been planning for her, but they couldn’t have known she was coming until they’d arrested her scouts. Did having the gene put her in more danger or make her more valuable, or both?

“Speak up, girl,” the Protectorat said briskly. “Do you have Leon with you or not?”

“We do.”

“And how many others? Two thousand? Answer my questions. Don’t act stupid.”

“There are eighteen hundred of us. We want to set up a new community, New Sylum, just below Wharfton. We’ll need a supply of water to survive.”

“Let me correct you,” he said. “You’ve brought me a political nightmare. An army of rats, swarming outside my walls. In the last hour, I’ve had a dozen do-good busybodies pounding down my door and insisting we open the gate for you, and twice as many others clamoring to know how I’m going to protect them from your diseases and criminals.”

“We just need some time for your people to become better acquainted with ours,” she said. She kept her voice respectful and quiet. “We’re not criminals, or unhealthy.”

“Your scouts gave me the same hogwash. I’m not buying it.”

“Where are they now?”

“In the prison. They’re of no use to me anymore, now that their information has proven accurate. I can release them. You see, I’m a reasonable person,” the Protectorat said. “You, on the other hand, are not. You came here needing our help, yet you didn’t even have the courtesy to give us a warning. I’m sure you’ll understand if we’re not prepared to be generous.”

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