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       Prized, p.11

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  It boggled Gaia’s mind. “She’s known all this time? But you haven’t been sent to the libbies.”

  “No. She worked out a deal with my mother,” Peony said. “They settled it together privately that I’ll marry Boughton Phineas two years from now, if I can behave myself until then. He’s old, nearly thirty, from a good family. He knows, but he’ll keep it quiet, and we’re supposed to spend time together so it looks like love. It’s possible no one will ever even suspect I buried the box.”

  Gaia couldn’t wrap her head around it. “If she’s known this, if you’ve worked this all out—” She could hardly breathe. “Then why has she left me here all these weeks?”

  “She must want you to tell her yourself.”

  Gaia dropped her head back against the rocker.

  “Just tell her already,” Peony said. “She already knows. Give this up.”

  “I’ve been protecting you all this time. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

  “I thought you were holding out for other girls like me in the future,” Peony said. “Isn’t that true?”

  “Yes, but then why are you saying this?” Gaia asked. “Do you wish you’d kept your baby? Do you think no one else should ever induce a miscarriage?”

  Peony shook her head, her eyes gleaming. “I’m thankful for what you did for me. Believe me. But I think we need you out of the lodge. There’s so much else you can do for us, and you need your own freedom. You’re wasting away into nothing. When I asked for your help, I never guessed this would happen to you. I never dreamed you’d hold out so long.”

  Gaia’s mind was whirling with the possibilities. “She sent you to say this, didn’t she?”

  “No. She told me not to talk to you. I came myself. And I brought you something else, too.” Peony reached up her sleeve and extricated a folded bit of paper. She took another look out the doorway and then stepped near, holding it out.

  Gaia felt a shiver before she even took it in her fingers. “Who’s it from?”

  “I think you know. I thought you’d want to hear from him.”

  “I’m not supposed to receive any messages,” Gaia whispered. “If you ever tell, if the Matrarc ever knows, it will be as if I’d stepped outside the lodge.” Sudden fear closed in around her. “Wait.” She couldn’t take it. She couldn’t read it. As if it scorched her, Gaia dropped the folded paper onto the table. “I can’t.”

  “Are you crazy? Do you know the risks I took to bring that to you?” Peony said. “I had to find Malachai’s brother and get him to smuggle paper and ink in to Malachai, and then back out. Twice I had to try. It took forever.”

  Gaia shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I’ve stayed here weeks without going outside even one step just to prove to the Matrarc that she can’t control me.”

  Peony looked utterly confused. “But she’s controlled you this whole time,” she argued.

  “No. She hasn’t.” Gaia backed away from the table, her eyes still fixated on the little paper, knowing Leon had touched it, written on it. He had words just for her. She wrenched her gaze away. “You have to take it back.”

  Peony laughed in astonishment. “You are totally and completely mixed up. Do you know that? She’s got you so confused that you don’t even know what matters anymore.” Peony marched forward, snatched up the note, and cast it in the fire where the paper hovered a moment and then burst into flames.

  Gaia grabbed at the spinning wheel, watching the last, crinkling bit of Leon’s message turn to black ash. “Do you even know what it said?” she asked.

  “I have no idea. It was in some code. I’m going,” Peony said quietly. “I thought you needed a friend.”

  “I do.”

  Peony’s expression turned even more serious. “Then listen to me. Get yourself out of the lodge. Quit holding on to some ideal that won’t ever fit here. Come back to life, Mlass Gaia.”

  Gaia spent a black night wrestling with herself, and when morning finally came, she asked Norris to send a message up to the Matrarc.

  “Why? What are you doing?” Norris said.

  “Just do it, please. I need to speak to her.”

  The Matrarc came a few hours later, just as the mlasses were finishing their lessons in the atrium. She came in the front door of the atrium, her belly noticeably larger than when Gaia had seen her last. Her red cane tapped softly along the floor, and Gaia left her books on the table to go join her.

  “Mlady Matrarc,” Gaia said softly. She felt sick inside, despising herself, and the whittled stump of her defiance tried once again to assert itself. But she forced it down. She’d made her decision. She was a compromiser now. A survivor. A grown-up.

  “Let’s go to your room to speak in private,” the Matrarc said.

  Gaia could see the interested gazes of the other mlasses and Mlady Roxanne as she and the Matrarc passed through the atrium and down the hall. Gaia’s bedroom was quiet, the window closed, her things in tidy order.

  The Matrarc closed the door. “You have something to tell me?”

  Gaia swallowed hard. “It was Mlass Peony. I gave her a concoction of herbs to induce her miscarriage.”

  The Matrarc’s face relaxed in relief. Gaia waited for her to say something victorious, but she merely smiled. “This is a wise decision,” the Matrarc said. “You won’t regret it.”

  Gaia’s chest hurt with each breath she inhaled. “I’m sure you’re right.”

  “I need your assurance it won’t happen again,” the Matrarc continued. “You can refer anyone to me if they come to ask you for any such assistance again.”

  It took a moment for Gaia to grasp what she meant. “Instead of helping them, I’m supposed to turn them in.”

  The Matrarc nodded. “Yes. Although, once the word gets around that you’re not safe to trust, my guess is no one will come to you.”

  “What will you do with them?”

  “I’ll be sure such a girl gets the support she needs until her baby can come to term. I’ll have you in to examine her, as needed.”

  Gaia closed her lips tightly and looked down at the floor. That would be exquisitely difficult for Gaia to do. Another sliver of herself broke away. “All right.”

  “Now for Maya,” the Matrarc continued. “Do you concede that she belongs with her new family, and you won’t try to take her back, ever?”

  Gaia had seen this coming, too. “Yes. I give her up, permanently. But can I see her?”

  “I’ll arrange for you to have a short visit,” the Matrarc said.

  “Is she doing well?”

  The Matrarc turned her cane in her hand. “Actually, she hasn’t thrived the way I’d hoped.”

  Alarm shot through Gaia. “What do you mean?”

  The Matrarc shook her head. “You’ll see. I’ll ask her mother when would be a good time for a visit and let you know. Don’t be alarmed. She’s not at death’s door or anything, but we’ll all be more comfortable when she takes on more weight.”

  Gaia pushed a hand back through her hair. Let it go. You can’t do anything, she told herself. Before she could feel any more panic or despair, she forced herself to be calm.

  “And Leon? You’ll release Leon from the prison?” Gaia asked.

  The Matrarc frowned briefly. “You’re sure about that? Vlatir is a most troubled and difficult young man.”

  “You promised.”

  “I know,” the Matrarc said. “I can always have him arrested again if he breaks the law.” She took a deep breath, then exhaled. “I’ll release him after the games tonight. There will be enough other commotion going on that no one will notice, and with extra guards on patrol, we can easily take him back again if we need to.”

  “Tonight, then?” Gaia asked.

  “Yes. You can see him then.”

  She should have been happy, but stifling loneliness moved through her like a thin, gray shadow. She reached for her locket watch and slowly took it off over her neck. Opening the top drawer of her dresser, she carefully put it ins
ide.

  “What’s that you’re doing?” the Matrarc asked.

  “I’m taking off my locket. I’ll put it with my midwife supplies.”

  “Resume harvesting your herbs and building up your stock of medicines as soon as you can. I’ll send the pregnant cuzines to you starting tomorrow, and you can go down to Mx. Dinah’s to meet the pregnant libbies next.”

  “All right,” Gaia said.

  The Matrarc smiled. “It’s lovely to have you on my side, Mlass Gaia, and to know I can count on you. It’s most gratifying.”

  “I’m happy to serve,” Gaia said.

  And it was true. It had to be. It was only after she’d spoken that she realized why the words felt so familiar: she’d spoken them often in the Enclave.

  “Tonight, I want you to sit with my daughter Taja and Mlass Peony at the games. Dress nicely. See if Norris will give you a haircut before then. I’ve heard you look quite shaggy. And for now, I’d like you to bring me a pitcher of cool tea out on the front porch,” the Matrarc said. “I expect some of the other mladies to meet me there, and I’d like them to see you coming outside. That would be nice, I think.”

  The significance was not lost on Gaia. The Matrarc wanted the cuzines to see that she had won, and that Gaia was now permanently under her thumb of her own free will. Gaia felt exposed, humiliated.

  “It will just take me a minute in the kitchen,” Gaia said.

  “With mint,” the Matrarc added. “I like mint.” She didn’t wait for an answer, but turned for the door and let herself out.

  CHAPTER 9

  brothers

  GAIA WALKED STIFFLY down the hall and into the kitchen, where Norris was rolling out piecrust on the big wooden table.

  “It’s done,” she said. “The Matrarc has released me from the lodge.”

  Norris stilled his roller to regard her carefully. “And you’re happy with that.”

  She didn’t feel anything. Not a thing, except a residue of humiliation.

  She looked out the windows to where the sunlight dropped brightly onto the greens and beiges of the autumn garden. “She wants a pitcher of cool tea for the mladies on the porch,” she said. “With mint.”

  “The mint’s not going to come walking in here by itself,” Norris said. “I’ll start the tea.”

  She stepped quietly to push the screen door open, watching her hand for the first moment the October sunlight fell on her skin. She held her other hand out, too, turning it in the light, and then she stepped down the two steps and pushed out into the garden where sun fell on her bare head and shoulders for the first time in weeks. She’d never noticed before that the warmth of it had an almost tactile, invisible weight. It burrowed into her white blouse, warming her through. She breathed deep, scenting the earthy tang of the garden, still waiting to feel happy.

  A dog was barking in the distance. Walking to the garden gate, she set her hands along the top where the wood was bleached rough and warm in the sun. Beyond the fence, the world was waiting. She could go to visit Maya on the island. She could go to Will’s anytime she pleased. She would see Leon tonight.

  Nothing jumped inside her. It was as if her heart had moved underground, and the blood moved slowly, silently through her veins, all on its own.

  The matina bell sounded from the tower, sending a rich, melodic bong reverberating through the air, followed by two more, and Gaia lowered her head and closed her eyes. Strangely, the one thing she could feel was gratitude. She was grateful to be alive on this gorgeous gift of a day. She lifted a finger and touched it calmly to her heart, to the empty place where her locket watch used to rest, and felt complete.

  As Gaia arrived on the veranda with a tray, a posse of men on horseback was riding up the center of the commons, and the dog gave a last bark before it was scolded into silence. The Matrarc stood holding her red cane on the top step, with Mlady Maudie speaking in her ear. Gaia set the tray on the Matrarc’s table and backed up beside Mlady Roxanne.

  “What’s going on?” Gaia asked.

  “The outriders have brought in three newcomers,” Mlady Roxanne said.

  A bearded young man swung down from his horse. He beat dust from his shirt and pants with his hat, then put it back on, and as he tossed the reins toward a boy, Gaia recognized Chardo Peter. It was the first time she’d seen him since he’d captured her by her fire in the wasteland, and saved her, and held her down in the dirt before the Matrarc.

  He walked with a loose, easy gait toward the lodge.

  “Chardo! Where did you find these newcomers?” said the Matrarc.

  “To the west, Mlady,” he said. “At the edge of the wasteland. There are three altogether, but I don’t know if the last one will make it.”

  The Matrarc came down the steps and held out a hand. “Bring me,” she said, and Peter guided her forward. In the middle of the posse, two of the riders had their hands tied behind their backs, and a third figure, slumped forward, had his hands tied to the pommel.

  “Why are the men tied?” Gaia asked.

  Mlady Roxanne moved forward and curled a hand around a porch stanchion. “They’re nomads. They could be dangerous. We keep them bound until the Matrarc has a chance to interview them.”

  Gaia peered at the men. She’d never heard anything about her brother, Jack Bartlett, who had left the Enclave shortly before she had. She couldn’t help hoping he’d found a way to survive in the wasteland, perhaps with nomads like these. The two sitting up looked rough and tired, covered in dust. They wore goggles, and their boots had dark buckles. Neither resembled Jack, but the unconscious one had his head wrapped in a concealing bandage. Gaia started down the steps.

  As she stepped near to the prisoner’s horse, she could see an edge of dark beard, but otherwise the man’s face was pressed unnaturally against the horse’s neck. Just as she reached for the man’s bandage, Peter moved nearer to block her way.

  “Mlass, wait. He could have a disease.”

  Gaia turned to the Matrarc. “Please, Mlady,” she said. “I want to see this prisoner. He’s hurt.”

  “Tell me what you see, Mlass Gaia,” the Matrarc said.

  Peter accommodated her then. “Allow me.” He lifted the man’s shoulder and turned his face. A fly flew away from the dead nomad’s nostril, and a dribble of blackened blood oozed from his mouth. At least he wasn’t Jack.

  “He’s dead, Mlady,” Gaia said. “He has been for some time.”

  Peter released him. “I’ll take him up to Will’s.”

  “Do that. And after you’ve cleaned up, I want a full report,” the Matrarc said. “Munsch, Leeds. Get these boys down to the prison. I’ll follow. Dominic?”

  The Matrarc’s husband was already bringing the carriage to her.

  “Would you like to go up the valley to deliver a body with me, Mlass Gaia?” Peter asked.

  Puzzled, she glanced up at the dusty outrider. Half hidden in his beard was a tired, quizzical smile, and she was surprised. Wary.

  “That’s a different kind of invitation,” she said.

  “I could use a hand.”

  “I doubt that.”

  “I’m too stinky for you. That’s what it is.”

  His relaxed voice caught her off guard and almost made her smile. His eyes, under the brim of his hat, were both welcoming and diffident, as if he expected her to refuse. She glanced back at the porch, where the other mladies were back to their knitting and cool tea. The other prisoners and the Matrarc were disappearing down the other end of the commons.

  It struck her then that she was actually, truly free. She could go where she liked. She felt lost for a moment, directionless. Should she go down to look for Leon in the prison yard?

  “Mlass?” Peter was waiting for a reply.

  It had been so long since she had spoken to anyone outside the lodge. A walk to Will’s barn would be a simple place to start, simpler than anything else, she reasoned. Or anybody else. Peter held out the reins of his horse toward her.

  She re
ached to take them. “Come on, Spider,” she said.

  “You remembered his name.”

  “He’s the first horse I ever met.”

  The big animal following her docilely, and she walked opposite Peter as he led the dead man’s horse up the road.

  “I wasn’t sure you’d remember much at all from that day,” he said.

  She cast her mind back to that first brilliance of breathable light in the forest. The marsh had looked like a doubled sky below the horizon, and his arms had kept her and Maya safe: all of that belonged to Peter, as much as did the moment when he held her down in the dust. She reexamined her memories with new understanding and could no longer blame him for obeying the Matrarc so mercilessly.

  “I remember a lot,” she said. “Thank you for saving me and Maya. I’m grateful.”

  “I’ve worried about you,” he said. “I heard you had a rough time adjusting.”

  “That,” she said, “is the understatement of the year.”

  “Are things better now?”

  She scuffed her loafers in the dust of the road. “As you see. I’m out of the lodge.”

  “When did your period of reflection end?”

  “Today. Just now.”

  “Just now? Actually now?” he asked. “What perfect timing.”

  The trees arched over the road and intertwined their leafy branches above, like a great lace veil of changing color, and the air smelled, by turns, like honey and hay and the animal scent of the horses. The high buzz of the cicadas rolled invisibly through the branches, and Gaia soaked it all in. Even the dirt road felt different now under the thin soles of her loafers.

  “Are you going to start being a midwife again?” he asked.

  “Yes,” she said. “I started working on the herbs before I was confined. Your brother brought quite a few from your garden.”

  “He did? I’ve brought a lot of our herbs back from when I was on trail.”

  “I hope he didn’t deplete your own supplies.”

  Peter laughed, a warm mellow sound. “There were plenty. Are there any you’re still looking for?”

  “Motherwort,” she said. “And shepherd’s purse and lobelia. I hardly know what I’ll do without them.”

 
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