Promised Page 12

“Do you actually sign a contract or something?” Gaia asked.

“We get this.” Emily held out her left wrist, where her bracelet shimmered around her skin. It was made of some material Gaia had never seen before, both delicate and strong, elastic enough that Emily could push the band comfortably up her arm yet snug enough that she couldn’t slide it off over her hand. A golden clasp attached the ends together, and fine strands of gold laced a filigree on the surface. Most unusual was the soft, blue glow.

“It’s beautiful,” Gaia said.

“This is the contract,” Emily said. “It’s a matter of honor. When you agree to join the Vessel Institute, you agree to stay until your promised baby is born. You keep this on until the birth ceremony, when the parents receive their child and cut the bracelet. Until then, it emits a signal so the Protectorat always knows where you are. The parents know, too, anytime they want to check on you. They find it reassuring.”

“So it’s a security device?” Gaia asked.

Emily looked at her oddly. “If you want to be cynical.”

“I’m just trying to understand. Are you saying you’re not captives?”

“Of course not,” Emily clarified. “One girl has already broken her promise and left. Do you remember Sasha? From back home? She left.”

“Sasha was in on this?” Gaia rarely thought about their other girlhood friend.

“She isn’t anymore. You can cut off your bracelet any time you like,” Emily continued, “but if you do, the contract is null and void. You won’t be paid and you won’t receive any more medical care. You’ll prove yourself a liar. Worst of all, you’ll give unspeakable grief to the disappointed couple that trusted you and paid for your care all this time. You’ll be stealing their child.”

Gaia was increasingly uncomfortable with Emily’s use of “you.”

“But, Emily,” Gaia protested. “How can you possibly carry a baby in you all those months, knowing you have to give it up? How could you do that? You’ve had your boys.”

“I still have my boys,” Emily said. “I’m staying with them here forever. I’m doing this for them.”

Gaia stared at her, shocked. “So you’ll give away their sibling?”

Emily closed her eyes and took a deep, visible breath. Gaia suddenly realized that she’d crossed a line. When Emily opened her eyes again, she had herself firmly in control.

“Of course we grow attached to the babies,” Emily said. “That’s a natural part of it, and if you ask me, babies need to feel they’re loved and wanted long before they’re ever born. But that’s why being a vessel mother is such an amazing, sensitive job. It takes a special person to do this, Gaia. A completely selfless, generous woman. But it’s worth it. Have you ever met a couple that wants desperately to have a child, but can’t? Your heart goes out to them.”

“I thought that’s why we used to have advanced babies. So they could adopt,” Gaia said.

“But those Wharfton mothers never had a choice. You saw that firsthand. Isn’t this better? We vessel mothers see where our babies are going. They aren’t just lost to some void.”

Gaia was surprised. “You know the parents of your babies?”

Emily’s profile was aimed toward the courtyard below, and she smiled once more at one of the women who looked upward. “We aren’t supposed to know, specifically, which couple’s child we carry, but some of us have guesses,” she said. “The couples know. They picked us, and some of them can’t help seeming to have favorites. We meet them socially. They like to take us to events and give us cute little gifts. They’re so grateful. We’re invited to all the nicest parties. We’re like royalty here.”

“For a year,” Gaia said.

Emily turned to her. “Yes. For a year. Maybe longer.”

“And then what? The mothers go back outside the wall, like nothing ever happened and leave their pampered lives behind? What happened to Sasha?”

“I haven’t heard from her. I’m not surprised.” Emily paused beside a corner pillar and leaned a shoulder against it. “We’ll have to see about the rest. Some will have a chance to stay on, as I said. For the ones who go back outside, their lives couldn’t possibly be as hard as they were before they came because they’ll have sizable payments. And memories. They’ll have memories of living here that they never could have had. Look at them.” She glanced sideways at Gaia. “Don’t you remember how amazing this all was to you the first time you saw it?”

Gaia regarded her friend. “Yes. But it changed. And it changed how I see things outside the wall, too.” Gaia wondered uneasily what role in this scenario the Protectorat saw for her. “How were the women chosen in the first place?”

“The Protectorat chose the women. We invited forty initially. We ended up with twelve who agreed to be vessel mothers, plus me.”

“But why the original forty? I want to know how they were chosen,” Gaia pressed. “Was it for genetic reasons? Didn’t you say that the couples picked you?”

“I only meant that each couple picked a vessel mother to carry their child once we’d joined the institute.” Emily’s expression grew puzzled for a moment. “I don’t know how the forty women were originally selected. I mean, they were all healthy, single women from Wharfton. They had to be intrinsically generous to even consider joining. No one’s doing it purely for greed, that’s for sure.” She met Gaia’s gaze directly. “Frankly, Gaia, you don’t need to worry. The institute only takes women who actively want to do this, and you obviously don’t. The Protectorat won’t want you on board.”

“He has some other plan for me,” Gaia said. “I don’t know what. I could have told him already that I’d never sell a baby of mine, not for any price.”

Emily’s face closed as completely as if a shutter were drawn. “Harsh, Gaia.”

Gaia couldn’t help herself. “I’m telling you, Emily, this isn’t going to work. This is heartache just begging to happen.”

“I’m not naïve,” Emily said, moving toward the hallway that led back to the Protectorat’s headquarters, snapping her fingers to signal the guard to follow. “Heartache’s a given, isn’t it? At least this is chosen heartache.”

“Emily,” Gaia said, her voice hushed.

Emily managed two more steps and then spun around again. With her cheeks flushed and her poise gone, she looked once more like the girl Gaia remembered. “How dare you judge me? How dare you accuse me of selling my child? You left. You went off into the wasteland with your sister. If I had known what was going to happen, I’d have taken my family and gone with you. But I didn’t. And I’ve had to survive just as much as you have.”

“I’m sorry,” Gaia said. “I heard how the Protectorat took your son, and I heard about Kyle. I miss him, too.”

Emily took a step nearer, dropping her voice.

“I don’t want to hear you say his name,” Emily said.

“No. I won’t. I’m sorry.”

“And I don’t want your pity, either.”

Gaia felt an awful burst of emotion rising through her. She couldn’t stand to be fighting with her oldest friend. It felt like the last good thing from her childhood was exploding in her face. “Please don’t be like this,” Gaia pleaded.

Emily’s expression turned dismissive. “You were always so immature.”

Chapter 8


EMILY PUSHED OPEN THE door to the office, and the guard hurried to catch it and hold it wide for Gaia. Gaia stood riveted to the carpet, stuck between shame and hurt. The guard made a soft humming noise, and she glanced up. He’d obviously heard her entire exchange with Emily, but his expression was impassive.

“What?” she said quietly.

“You might tell Leon that Marquez says hello. That’s all,” he said. “After you, Masister.”

His calm voice and kindness gave her just the reprieve she needed to regain some of her composure. She inhaled deeply. “Thanks,” she whispered, and stepped into the room after Emily.

The Protectorat and Mabrother Iris were standing together over the desk, discussing something, but they looked up as Gaia entered.

“Your people know better than to attack, don’t they?” the Protectorat asked.

Gaia moved forward, alarmed. “What do you see?”

She didn’t think they’d attack without her, not this quickly, but she realized she had no idea. Who was running things out there? Will? Leon? The Protectorat tapped an enlarged screen on the desktop, and the quad before the Tvaltar came into startlingly clear view. Will, Peter, and Dinah were huddled in a tight conference with Derek Vlatir and several other leaders from Wharfton. Two dozen of the female archers from New Sylum were poised on the Tvaltar steps, and a rough-looking lot from Wharfton had gathered with shovels, pickaxes, and clubs.

Gaia scanned each face for Leon, but couldn’t find him. Something’s wrong, her gut told her. He should be with them.

“Call up reinforcements for the wall guard,” the Protectorat said. “They’re not getting anywhere with arrows, but keep an eye on them.”

At that moment, the door opened forcefully, and Genevieve, the Protectorat’s wife, charged into the room. “Miles!” she began, then stopped as her gaze met Gaia. “You!” she exclaimed. “Do you know where my daughter is?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea,” Gaia said.

Genevieve flew to her husband. “Evelyn’s gone! I sent a girl to look for her an hour ago, and it turns out no one’s seen her. She’s nowhere to be found.”

“Iris?” the Protectorat said.

“I’m looking,” Mabrother Iris said, typing rapidly. “South gate? Did Masister Evelyn pass through today?”

Genevieve braced both of her hands on the computer desk, leaning over it as she peered closely at the screen. Her white dress reflected in the black glass, and when her golden hair slipped forward over her shoulder, she shoved it back with distraught fingers.

A crackle came from a speaker in the desk, and then a man’s voice. “Yes, she passed through about two hours ago. She hasn’t returned. You want us to go looking for her?”

“If they hurt one hair of her head, you’re dead,” the Protectorat said to Gaia.

“Find her! Please, Miles, we have to find her! What if these new people have kidnapped her?” Genevieve said, then spun toward Gaia. “You must know something.”

“How could we possibly kidnap her?” Gaia said. “She saw me being arrested. That’s all I know. I asked for her help, and she said she would talk to you.”

Genevieve frowned. “Arrested?” she asked, and turned to the Protectorat. “Isn’t she the leader of the new people?”

“She’s more like collateral at this point,” he answered. “If they have Evelyn, we’ll get her back.”

“Please, Masister,” Genevieve pleaded, approaching Gaia. “Did Evelyn say anything else? Anything at all? She never came to see me. Do you have any clue why she’d go outside the wall?”

Gaia glanced at Emily, who was remaining silently observant in the background. “She probably went out to see her brother,” Gaia said.

Genevieve went still. “Leon’s back?” she asked, her voice suddenly quiet. After her frenetic worry, she now turned deliberately toward her husband. “How long have you known this?”

“Since yesterday,” the Protectorat said. “One of Masister Stone’s scouts saw fit to mention it.”

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