Promised Page 11

“I didn’t send envoys earlier because I was afraid you’d refuse to let us come.”

He smiled slightly. “But now that you’re here, we have no choice. You’re forcing my hand. Is that correct?”

She hesitated, knowing it was true. “We can’t go back, Mabrother,” she explained. “The environment in the Dead Forest was poisoned. My people have been dying off by generations until we reached a critical point. Now we just want a chance to survive. We want to see our children survive. It’s the same thing you want here, isn’t it? The Enclave has more than enough resources to share.”

“We only have resources because we planned and sacrificed. People always seem to forget that.”

“We’ll pay for what we need.”

The Protectorat paced away from her, and then turned.

“How do you think you could pay?” he asked. “I’m curious. For eighteen hundred of you, that’s four thousand, five-hundred liters of water a day, not counting bathing or crops. Water costs, Masister Stone.”

“We can work for it,” Gaia said. “We bring craftsmen and artists and farmers. We’re not helpless.”

“Artists?” the Protectorat said, plainly amused. “I didn’t realize you had a sense of humor.”

Gaia fell silent. She refolded the handkerchief and pressed a clean area to her ear again, trying to think how to persuade him. “You must still be concerned about the problems of inbreeding,” she said.

“Interesting you should mention that,” he said. “It so happens I am quite concerned.”

“Diversification is the best long-term solution,” she said. “Your hemophilia and infertility inside the wall are a direct result of inbreeding. Open the gate, encourage the people of the Enclave, Wharfton, and New Sylum to get to know each other, and intermarriage will solve your problem. In the meantime, we can irrigate—”

He waved a hand, cutting her off. “Your idea of intermarriage does have merit, I concede,” he said. “Don’t think I haven’t considered it, but aside from how distasteful the concept is, it’s a long-term solution that would take generations to be fruitful. It can’t help our acute problem right now, and just as your people can no longer wait, we in the Enclave are no longer willing to wait for an answer. I wonder how much you, personally, would be willing to sacrifice for your people.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He moved slowly around the room, setting his hand on the back of one chair, and then another, observing her. While she’d been on trail, she’d hardly noticed the unavoidable grime that had settled into her clothes, but now, surrounded by impeccable elegance, she realized how dingy her blouse and trousers had become, and she could only guess how wild her hair must look. She straightened, meeting his scrutiny with her own unapologetic dignity, and saw a hint of respect register in his eyes.

“I am caught in a delicate position, the sort you might appreciate as a leader yourself,” he said. “Additional cases of hemophilia this past year have brought unspeakable anguish to certain families, and we’ve been helpless to do anything for them. Myrna Silk’s blood bank is a stopgap at best before her patients die from the disease.” His gaze met Gaia’s. “We have no cure, but we have found a way to prevent hemophilia. At least, in theory, we have. To put it in practice, we’ve just needed one more key piece.”

“Which is what?”

The Protectorat tilted his head slightly, and idly smoothed his mustache. “I’d like you to consider an interesting dilemma. Suppose one person could sacrifice something that would help a handful of people, and then that handful of people went on to help an entire community. Should that one first person make the sacrifice?” He regarded her closely. “Should the community compel the first person to make it?”

“It depends on what the sacrifice is, and the benefit to the community,” Gaia said. She wasn’t stupid. He obviously wanted something from her.

The Protectorat patted his hand on the back of the nearest chair and straightened taller. “I’d like to reacquaint you with a very important, pivotal person. She’s a fine, peace-loving young woman to whom I am deeply indebted,” he said, and glanced at Mabrother Iris. “Please ask Masister Waybright to join us.”

A side door opened softly, and Emily stepped in.

“Emily!” Gaia cried. She was so happy to see her old friend that she impulsively started forward, but Emily’s quiet smile remained aloof.

“Untie her, please, Mabrother,” Emily said politely to the Protectorat.

Gaia stopped where she was, shocked. Who was this calm, genteel girl? Her auburn hair was neatly swept back in a soft bun, setting off her wide cheekbones and jawline. A white, high-waisted dress draped gracefully over her slender form and fell to below her knees. An unusual bracelet adorned her left wrist, and Gaia had to look twice to realize it wasn’t simply reflecting light, but emanating a soft, blue glow. Emily’s formerly expressive eyes were as intelligent as ever, but now gently calm. What surprised Gaia the most was the assurance with which Emily spoke to the Protectorat, the most powerful man in the Enclave, as if expecting her command to be obeyed.

Even more startling, the Protectorat nodded to the guard by the door. “Release her,” he said.

Gaia held her wrists up and felt the little jerks as the young guard undid the strap. She couldn’t take her eyes off her girlhood friend.

“Are you all right?” Gaia asked. “Where are your children? Are your boys well?”

“They’re in the nursery,” Emily said. “They’re quite well, thank you.” She turned to the Protectorat. “Have you told her anything?”

“I thought you could explain things best, seeing as you’re old friends,” he said.

“Are you offering her a position?” Emily asked.

Gaia rubbed at her wrists, attending closely.

“It’s not the usual position. Just bring her up to date on the institute as it now stands,” the Protectorat said.

Mabrother Iris cleared his throat, and Gaia glanced over to find him following the exchange with interest, but he said nothing.

“As you like, Mabrother,” Emily said. “The girls are in the back courtyard breaking for tea. It would be easiest to take Gaia there to explain.”

“Take her to one of the overlooking balconies,” the Protectorat said. “Have you seen Genevieve?”

“Your wife was in the kitchen half an hour ago,” Emily said.

The Protectorat gestured to the guard, who opened the door. “Stay with them.”

The guard inclined his head, holding the door, and in a moment that seemed strangely surreal to Gaia, she walked out behind the elegant girl who had once been her best friend in hardscrabble Wharfton, and followed her down the hallway of the Bastion.

“Emily!” Gaia said urgently in a low voice. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”

Emily glanced over her shoulder as she kept walking. “I’m sure this is all rather a surprise to you.”

“You’re my best friend. I haven’t seen you in over a year, and you’re treating me like a stranger!” Gaia said.

“Well, then. If you put the clues together, you can probably guess I’m not your best friend anymore,” Emily said.

Gaia came to a stop. “What is this?” she demanded.

Emily paused, too, crossing her arms as she turned to face Gaia. She flicked her gaze toward the guard, who was obviously within earshot and showed no inclination to leave. “My old life is over. All of it. I’m going forward, and difficult as it is to greet you with civility, I’m doing my best. Please don’t ask me for more. Now if you’ll turn here, you’ll be able to see into the courtyard.”

Gaia stared at her. “You can’t be serious. This is me you’re talking to!”

“Believe me, I am fully aware of who you are. Now if you please, come along here,” Emily said.

A popping noise burst in a bright rhythm, went silent, and then began again, growing louder as they approached. When Gaia and Emily came around another corner, the corridor opened into a covered balcony that overlooked a square courtyard, and Gaia recognized that she’d been there once before with her mother, although perhaps on one of the other tiers. She hadn’t had time before to appreciate how the graceful, arched openings surrounded the courtyard on all four sides, stacked four levels high, but now she found the harmonious effect decidedly inviting.

Emily raised a hand in greeting over the balustrade. The popping noise, Gaia saw, came from a pair of young women playing ping pong at a table below, their collars loose and damp with sweat. Five other young women were resting with their feet up on lounges and chairs. Two more were pouring tea at a dainty, wheeled cart, and two others were playing chess. Potted ferns in the corners added touches of green, and several pale orange awnings were unfurled to provide wide swatches of shade, but the overriding color was white, from the whitewashed columns of the surrounding balconies to the flowing white fabric of the women’s dresses and the porcelain sugar bowl on the linen-covered tea cart.

One of the women reached over to retrieve the ping pong ball, bracing a hand to her back. A luminescent bracelet identical to Emily’s gleamed on her wrist. All of the women, Gaia saw, wore the bracelets on their left wrists, and all of them were visibly pregnant. She had found the baby factory.

“Hello, Gaia!” one of the women called up, waving. “Come have some tea with us!”

Gaia recognized her from her days in Wharfton, playing in the quad, though she’d never known her well. A couple of the others looked vaguely familiar, too, and she saw from the way they looked at her scar that they knew who she was. She lifted a hand in polite greeting.

“I want to know everything,” Gaia said to Emily. “Are you pregnant, too?”

“Yes. Just two months,” Emily said. “I’m not showing yet. The others are much farther along. Trixie is due any day. What do you know of the Vessel Institute so far?”

“Only that you’re surrogate mothers in a pilot program.”

“That’s not strictly accurate,” Emily said, crossing her arms. “A few of us are surrogates, carrying children that are not biologically our own, but most of us have been artificially inseminated with the father’s sperm. Either way, we’re carrying promised babies for other parents, and our part is over when the babies are delivered.”

“You make it sound so simple. Like it’s a job,” Gaia said.

“In a way, it is,” Emily said. “We’ve been hired for one year, with the option to continue a second and third year if we satisfy. Anyone who delivers three healthy babies is entitled to stay in the Enclave for life, with a pension.”

Emily trailed a hand along the banister as they began a lap around the balcony. Gaia glanced back to see the guard discretely following them.

“What if you change your mind?” Gaia said. “What if you don’t want to give up your baby?”

“It isn’t my baby,” Emily clarified. “It doesn’t matter if we’ve been implanted with a blastocyst or inseminated with sperm. When we signed on, we agreed to give up any rights to the babies.”

“You lost me. What’s a blastocyst?”

“Sorry. It’s a little package of cells that forms about a week after fertilization,” Emily said. “It has everything you need to develop into a human embryo, so if it attaches well in the woman’s womb, it can eventually grow into a baby.”

Gaia glanced down to where two women leaned over a large book, and one laughed. They made a picture of health and peacefulness, and she couldn’t help contrasting it to what she knew of life back outside the wall.

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