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       Prized, p.10

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  He dropped a package on the counter. “What did you do to that boy?” Norris said, eyeing her suspiciously.

  “Nothing. I didn’t speak to him. You know I’m not supposed to. What did he say?”

  He shook his head. “He wanted to know if you’re well.”

  Gaia looked back out to the fog. Norris made a grunting noise and began moving around the kitchen, getting his apron, starting the fire, giving Una a nudge with his peg leg.

  “Mark my words,” he muttered in his gravelly voice. “The Matrarc’s turned you into a mystery woman and a martyr all at once. What boy could resist you?”

  “Will’s hardly a boy.”

  “Don’t give me that. He’s a boy playing a game,” Norris said. “The oldest game there is.”

  Gaia opened the second window and the third, swiveling the heavy sashes up to hook them open. “Have you heard anything about my friend Leon in prison yet? Vlatir? Anything at all?”

  “He didn’t take the horse.”

  Gaia turned sharply. “What else have you heard? How is he?”

  “He’s causing the guards some grief. They had him in solitary last week. My cousin mentioned it last night.”

  She returned to the table. “Solitary. You mean, like in an isolated cell?”

  Norris looked up from under his thick eyebrows. “Why do you want to know, Mlass Gaia? Will it make a difference? Are you going to give in to the Matrarc if you hear he’s miserable? Did you think he wasn’t?”

  It was the first time Norris had spoken to her this way. She ran her hands slowly down the front of her apron and watched him, feeling her cheeks grow warm. It definitely made it worse to know for certain that Leon was in trouble. Suffering, even. She couldn’t concentrate at all anymore.

  Norris turned away with a disgruntled noise. “You might as well open these,” he said, poking a finger into the package on the counter.

  “Promise me you’ll tell me if you hear any more about Leon,” she said.

  For answer, he merely pointed at the package again.

  “What are they?” she asked.

  “My cousin’s a cobbler. He had some extras lying around. I figure you’re going to be here awhile, and I’m getting tired of hearing your boots drag around all the time. I traced the bottom of one of your boots.”

  She unrolled the cloth wrapper to find two neat leather loafers inside, slender and soft, with thin, flexible soles. Wonder rose inside her, tempering her anxiety. “For me?” She couldn’t believe it. She shucked her heel out of her boot, slid off her sock, and tried the loafer. She tucked back her skirt and pivoted her ankle, trying to get a look. Her birthmarked tattoo showed clearly.

  She looked up at him, puzzled. He was trying to make her feel better, obviously. “You didn’t have to do this.”

  He shrugged. “Maybe I like that stubborn streak in you. Nobody’s stood up to the Matrarc in a long time. No mlass, at least.”

  She studied him as he lit the stove and dropped the iron plate back in its groove. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said.

  “No.” He glanced up. “But you did it. You’re still doing it, every day you’re here.”

  Gaia hadn’t thought that she was making the kind of statement that anyone else would notice, let alone respect. She wondered if Leon understood what she was doing. “You don’t even know what I did to get in trouble,” Gaia said.

  “I know it had something to do with that box Sawyer found.”

  She remembered the box too well. “Do many other people know?”

  “There’s been some speculation. Most of the cuzines approve of what the Matrarc’s doing with you, or she couldn’t do it.”

  Most, she thought. So not all. “What about the men?”

  “I can only speak for myself. I stay out of that woman’s stuff.”

  It got worse after that. Every day, she hoped for more news from Norris, but he rarely had it and it was always the same: Leon was still in prison. No, Norris didn’t know if he’d been back in solitary. No, he didn’t know if Leon was well or not. She began to wonder if he deliberately wasn’t telling her things that would upset her.

  The lodge itself began to feel tighter, smaller, its spaces dead, its walls claustrophobic, especially in comparison to what happened outside. The village had a big potluck dinner on the commons one evening, and Gaia brought dishes to pass out the door, but went no further. The dinner was followed by the thirty-two games, an athletic competition on an open field north of the village proper, and she could hear the cheering from the kitchen where she did dishes, left out completely. On another day, from an atrium window, she watched as three boys in their early teens were put in the stocks. They’d stolen the microscope that was used to determine who was an expool. On other days, men were put in the stocks for wife abuse, drunken fighting, and theft.

  The public punishments never failed to remind Gaia what would happen to her if she ever stepped outside the lodge. The Matrarc would keep her word, and a merciless exile to the wasteland would mean death, like what had come to the man at the oasis. Yet if Gaia never submitted to the Matrarc, never told her about Peony’s miscarriage, the lodge would become a living tomb for her, and Leon would be stuck forever with the crims.

  She could see no way out unless she submitted, utterly.

  The longer she stayed confined, the more she began to doubt herself. At night, restlessness drove her to the clerestory, where she paced around and around, trailing a hand along the smooth wooden balcony railing. By starlight, the sleeping village was an even hue of soft, deep purple, interrupted by bits of lamplight shining in the cabin windows, and Gaia could almost, but not quite, make out the prison down by the marsh.

  Leon was still there, because of Gaia.

  Pain sliced through her, and she cast her mind around for the millionth time, trying to find an answer.

  She could tell about Peony. Peony would be cast out of the cuzines and join the libbies with no chance of raising her own children someday. Gaia would have to agree never to assist anyone else with a miscarriage, no matter what the circumstances. She feared what would happen then. Women desperate to end their pregnancies would still try to do so, in secrecy and shame. Gaia drew a hand back through her hair and squeezed.

  Gaia didn’t want to be taking a stand against the Matrarc for the rights of hypothetical women she didn’t even know yet. It was such a small, small part of her job, so how had this become her issue?

  She closed her eyes, leaning her forehead against one of the window jambs. She certainly didn’t want to be taking this stand at Leon’s expense. “What should I do?” she whispered. If she gave in on this, she could give in on anything. Once tamed, she would be at the Matrarc’s service for the rest of her life.

  But how was that different from Will, or Norris, or Mlady Roxanne? Certainly they’d made compromises, too, to exist in this society. Maybe the rules she’d learned in Wharfton at her mother’s knee didn’t apply here. Cooperating might just be what she had to do, as a survivor and a grown-up.

  I’m not a grown-up. She didn’t ever want to be one if it meant giving up who she was.

  The cool night air drifted through the fabric screens, barely moving, and mosquitoes hummed on the other side, smelling her blood. The wild, insane birdcall rose from the marsh, and the echo of it made the hairs on her arms stand on end. She peered upward through the window, searching the heavens, and found the distinct row of three stars in Orion’s belt. As she made out the rest of the constellation, she thought of her parents, missing them, and wondering what they’d advise her to do.

  Another day. She would just get through another day, one at a time. She could do that. It couldn’t go on forever. The Matrarc would have to let her out when she saw Gaia would never give in.

  There was a tap on her door late one night, and Gaia woke instantly. “Come in.”

  The Matrarc entered quietly, keeping a hand on the knob.

  “Norris’s niece, Erianthe, is having a baby,” the Mat
rarc said.

  “I can be ready in a moment,” Gaia said, swinging her legs to the floor.

  “I need to know who you helped to miscarry.”

  Gaia gripped the edge of her mattress, looking up. The room was dark still, but Gaia realized the Matrarc wouldn’t be affected by that. By the barest hint of moonlight, she could see her waiting, a gleam of gray along the length of her cane. Gaia licked her dry lips.

  “I can’t tell you,” Gaia said.

  The Matrarc waited a long moment, then took a step backward.

  “Wait, please,” Gaia said. “Let me come. Erianthe might need me.”

  “Only if you tell.”

  Indecision ripped at her. Someone now, in childbirth, needed her. How could she not go?

  “Please,” Gaia said. “There has to be a way. You have to let me come. Assisting with miscarriages will be such a small part of all I ever do, hardly a fraction. Why can’t you just let this go?”

  The Matrarc waited without speaking for another moment. Then she backed up one more step and quietly closed the door.

  Gaia stood and hurled her pillow across the room, hearing something clatter on the desk and smash onto the floor. Stillness followed, charged in the dark air. With a moan, Gaia huddled onto her bed again, curling her head in her arms.

  Erianthe had a boy. Norris told Gaia when she met him in the kitchen later that morning. He was in an unusually foul mood, and since she’d hardly slept, Gaia wasn’t much better. I’ll never get out. The refrain kept running through her mind. She would never get out, the Matrarc would never release her, and she’d be no good to any mothers ever again. Leon would live out the rest of his years in prison because of her.

  She sank into the rocker near the hearth.

  “I don’t know what to do anymore,” she said.

  “Don’t ask me.” Norris smacked a ham on the table and reached for a cleaver.

  “I’m not.”

  Mlady Roxanne peeked her head in the doorway, her arms full of books. “What happened last night? I thought the Matrarc came for you.”

  “I couldn’t go with her unless I told her what she wants to know.”

  “Oh, Mlass Gaia,” Mlady Roxanne said sadly. She came in farther and set her books on the counter, nudging a bowl of onions.

  “What am I even doing here?” Gaia asked.

  “This happens when people are confined for reflection,” Mlady Roxanne said. “You’ll need to sort it through.”

  “I’m not doing anybody any good stuck here in the lodge. I don’t even understand this place. Not the first thing about it,” Gaia said.

  Mlady Roxanne and Norris exchanged glances, and Mlady Roxanne leaned back against the counter.

  “Can I help? Is there anything I can explain for you?” Mlady Roxanne asked.

  Gaia tossed up a hand. What she needed was advice about what to do, but she couldn’t ask for that without telling about Peony. Other information would have to suffice. “Everything. Why are the women in charge? What gives the Matrarc so much power?”

  “There is something exceptional about Mlady Olivia,” Mlady Roxanne said. She sent another glance to Norris and continued. “The cuzines have elected her, of course, but it’s more than that by now. It isn’t simply control or force. It’s more like influence, leadership. She really listens. I, for one, trust her implicitly.”

  “You can’t help but respect her,” Norris said.

  Mlady Roxanne nodded. “She’s the best of us, I’d say.”

  “But how did the women even take control?” Gaia asked. “How did Sylum get like this?”

  “The women have always been in charge, ever since back in the cool age,” Mlady Roxanne said, surprised. “You have to imagine how snow fell two meters high and lasted for months, so the people who lived hereabouts were used to hardship and a degree of isolation, even when they had oil technology.” Her voice warmed with pride. “Our ancestors were uncomplaining, resourceful, no-nonsense types with a love of the land and nature.”

  “They drank a lot,” Norris said.

  Mlady Roxanne frowned at him. “Norris. That is completely untrue. For work, there were some glasswork artisans living around Lake Nipigon, but most were poppy croppers and small-scale farmers. They ice-fished and raised hogs and married lumberjacks, frankly. A bus brought library books. Much of our collection is left over from one of those buses.”

  “There’s the mine. That’s from before. And there’s the ruins near the mine,” Norris said.

  Mlady Roxanne nodded. “Right. We have a mine for iron oxide copper up on the bluff. The crims work there when we need them. The ruins aren’t much: some archaic concrete foundations. Once, the government put a branch of the department of revenue here to try to provide some jobs, and there was a famous fish farm for generations, but even that didn’t last.”

  Gaia looked over at Norris, who was cutting slices of the ham.

  “It doesn’t fit,” Gaia said. “Why is the Enclave so much more advanced? What happened to your electricity and technology?”

  “That all takes money,” Norris said. “And planning.”

  “It’s true,” Mlady Roxanne said. “Nothing here was planned. As the lake receded over decades, the people followed it farther in.” She gesticulated the tightening of a circle. “One night, a windstorm whipped through the area, killing many of the people and destroying their homes. The survivors banded together around a bonfire, seeking safety, and Sylum was born.”

  Gaia could see how that made sense. “Like ‘asylum’? When did the number of women start to fall off?”

  “A few generations ago it began to be noticeable.”

  “Why didn’t the men just take over? Why don’t they now?”

  Norris jabbed his cleaver in his cutting board with a bang. He headed out the back door and let it slam closed after him.

  “What did I say?” Gaia asked.

  Mlady Roxanne shook her head. “Norris doesn’t like to think about it. Now and then, the men grumble about changing things here, especially the expools like Norris, but they can’t.”

  “I didn’t know he was an expool.”

  Mlady Roxanne turned toward the window, and Gaia followed her gaze to where Norris was now heading out the gate. It changed something, knowing Norris had never even had a chance at being a father.

  “He’ll be back,” Mlady Roxanne said. “He just has to cool down.”

  “He’s upset that I didn’t help Erianthe, isn’t he?”

  “No, that’s not it. He doesn’t blame you.” Mlady Roxanne smiled sadly, the gap just showing in her teeth. “I don’t want you to think the men aren’t happy here. Most of them are. My husband and I have a beautiful family, and we have many unmarried friends from both the pool and the expool who are happy here, too. We’re leading productive, meaningful lives. But Norris and some of the others, too—sometimes they wish things could change.”

  “Why can’t they?”

  Mlady Roxanne laughed and reached for her pile of books. “The cuzines like their power too much to give it up, for one thing. They, or I should say ‘we,’ also do a good job running things. People like order. Besides, the women are all trained archers, and we have a guard of two hundred loyal men, sons and husbands of the cuzines that we can call up any time. That’s above and beyond the outriders and prison guards and such who keep order on a day-to-day basis. Those men in the guard want to protect what’s theirs, believe me, and the best way to do that is to maintain the status quo.”

  “Have the other men never revolted, then?” Gaia asked.

  “They did. Once.” Mlady Roxanne idly turned around the top book in her pile. “There was a time just after Mlady Olivia became Matrarc when some of the unmarried men wanted to take over. They got the notion that the women should be shared. Can you imagine? The Matrarc brought every female together in the lodge, cuzines and libbies alike, and she positioned the loyal guard around us.”

  “What happened then?”

  “We waited,”
Mlady Roxanne said. “It didn’t take long for the men with wives and families to realize they had to put down the rebellion. They killed the men who started it. The rest gave in, and life went back to normal, but they never forgot.”

  Gaia looked back out the window, and Norris was coming back up the path of the garden, limping on his peg leg. There were so many things he’d never had a choice about.

  “She won’t ever let me out, will she?” Gaia asked.

  Mlady Roxanne squeezed Gaia’s shoulder gently on her way out of the room. “It isn’t easy to give up what you believe in, Mlass Gaia. It just matters what you believe in more.”

  Weeks passed. A full moon came with another village potluck banquet and the traditional thirty-two games. When mothers were in labor, Gaia steeled herself for the Matrarc to come to her again, but she didn’t.

  Then one night, when Gaia was spinning wool by the fire in the kitchen, Peony came softly in from the garden door.

  “I hoped I’d find you here,” Peony said. Her face had gained a healthier color in the weeks since they’d spoken, but her eyes seemed even larger and her hair was back in a sober braid.

  “How are you?” Gaia asked.

  “I’m not supposed to talk to you. We don’t have much time.” Peony moved to the other doorway, where she could keep watch up the hall. “Have you talked to the Matrarc lately?”

  Gaia peered across at her. “No. Your secret’s still safe.”

  “My secret?” Peony frowned, turning to face Gaia. Her lips parted in an expression of surprise, then closed again firmly. “Mlass Gaia, I told her. Weeks ago.”

  “What?” Gaia couldn’t believe it.

  Peony wrapped her arms around herself. “I couldn’t stand to see what she was doing to you. None of it was your fault. So I told her.”

  “I don’t understand,” Gaia said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “I thought you already knew I told. I thought you were just being stubborn.”

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