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       Prized, p.12

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “We have some motherwort and shepherd’s purse. I can get those for you. Describe the lobelia for me and I’ll keep an eye out for it. You probably have the black rice flower and the lily-poppy already.”

  “What are those?”

  “People smoke the black rice flower all the time,” he said. “It mellows them out. The old doctor used to use the lily-poppy for pain. It’s a small, white flower that grows all over the marsh. I can show you.”

  “It’s a hybrid? An opiate?”

  “Yes.

  She would need to learn how to use it. “How do you know about herbs?”

  “I guess I was always interested in them ever since I was a kid. I used to eat flowers. They looked so good, you know? Then I’d throw up.”

  “No surprise there. Most flowers are poisonous.”

  “I know that,” he said, and smiled. “Now.”

  She laughed. She’d almost forgotten what laughing felt like, the way it lingered in her chest and behind her ears. It made her want more. She glanced over to see him picking a low-hanging leaf from a tree.

  “Tell me what it’s like where you’re from,” he said. “Is it wasteland all the way south, or is there another forest down there?”

  “It’s wasteland as far as I know,” she said. “Wharfton is at the edge of Unlake Superior. You’ve heard of the Enclave there.”

  “Just the stories your grandmother told. Does it still have electricity? That’s supposed to be a big deal, right?”

  She tried to imagine how to explain electricity to someone who’d never seen a working light bulb, let alone a computer. “It runs all the important technology: the lights, the computers, the mycoprotein vats, the Tvaltar, everything. It’s power.”

  “Like water here, running the grist mill?”

  She smiled. “Multiplied by a thousand.”

  “Do you miss it, your life there?”

  She missed the freedom she’d had outside the wall, and her old life before all the trouble with her parents and the code. Then again, she hadn’t fully grasped the cruelty of the Enclave at that point. It made her edgy to remember Leon was just a kilometer away, in the prison. She would see him soon. Tonight.

  “I miss parts of it,” she said.

  “Would you go back there if you could?” he asked.

  “No. Not considering how I left it.” She frowned. “Why? It isn’t even possible.”

  “It’s just a hypothetical question.”

  “Would you leave if you could?”

  “I would.”

  He sounded so sure.

  “Have you tried?” she asked.

  When he didn’t respond, a slow, expectant curiosity awoke inside her. She stopped walking. “Peter?”

  He stopped, too, and turned to face her, unsmiling. In his dusty, worn clothes and his beat-up brown hat, he looked like part of the wasteland itself, dropped out of place on the shady road. His eyebrows were drawn together, squint lines edged his eyes, and he seemed to be contemplating something in the distance past her right ear.

  “I have tried,” he admitted. “I was trying when I found you.”

  Her eyebrows shot up in amazement. “How far have you gone?”

  His voice dropped. “Pretty far. Different directions. I used to try to just go fast and far, but that got me sick fastest. Now I go slow. Once I went far enough to know I could have stayed out there, but there isn’t anything out there. Not really. That’s the problem. When I came back, I even had the acclimation sickness like newcomers get, though not quite as bad.”

  Gaia wanted to know more. “How did you do it, precisely?”

  “I went slowly, only a little distance each day, and anytime I started feeling weird, I just stopped and stayed where I was a while, not going any farther and not going back. I just stayed mellow, watched the stars, and slept a lot, you know? I spent a full week at the oasis, and I was fine. Until I came back, that is.”

  She started walking again, curious. “You think going slowly was the trick?”

  He fell into step beside her, keeping his voice low. “Part of it. I keep wondering if I ate something different then, or if the rainy weather made a difference. I don’t really know why it worked.”

  “You should tell the Matrarc. Does your family know? Didn’t they realize when you got the acclimation sickness?”

  “They thought I ate something. I can’t tell them I’m essentially experimenting on myself. They’d only worry about me. Besides, I’ve only succeeded at it the one time so far. I’d like to do it again to be sure. Please don’t tell.”

  “Nobody else knows?”

  “My riding partner must suspect. Munsch. But only him.”

  Gaia frowned pensively at the road, and then glanced up at him. “I’m not a person to tell secrets to,” she said. “If the Matrarc asks me, I won’t withhold information from her. You should know that about me.”

  “I’ll just have to hope she doesn’t ask you.” He smiled. “Don’t worry so much. I’ll tell her when I’m ready. When I figure it out for sure.”

  It was going to be strange for Gaia, not being able to keep secrets anymore. She felt like she was adjusting to a new version of herself. “I’m honored you told me,” she admitted. “Especially considering you hardly know me.”

  His smile deepened, showing a hint of white teeth. “I’ve thought of you often enough. I guess I trust you. It seems like you ought to know there’s hope.”

  She shook her head. “I’m going to try to forget it. Sylum is my home now. I can’t go back. Are you the one who found my Enclave friend in the wasteland?”

  “No. That was one of the other outriders.”

  “The Matrarc’s letting him out tonight,” she said. “I’m supposed to see him after the games.”

  “Nervous?”

  She was. She was worried about what he’d think of how she’d changed and worse, she was afraid he blamed her for his own captivity. He must. She dropped one hand in the pocket of her blue skirt and watched the road before her feet.

  “I’m sure if you’re friends, it will work out,” Peter said.

  Surprised, she glanced up. “What an incredibly nice thing to say.”

  “I’m a nice person.”

  She laughed. “And modest, too.”

  “Glad you can tell.”

  She laughed again. They continued up the dirt road, passing yards where clothes were drying on lines in the bright sunlight. A wheat field was golden, and a chicken was pecking in the dirt. When she felt something graze her arm, she glanced down. Peter was lightly touching her sleeve where a pale, thin golden leaf had lodged. He pulled the tiny leaf away, twisting it between his thumb and forefinger, and a shiver ran along her skin.

  “How old are you?” he asked.

  She looked at him carefully, wondering why that felt like such a personal question. “Sixteen. And you?”

  “Nineteen. What are you thinking?” he asked.

  “Do you ever shave?”

  He laughed, rubbing a hand along his bearded jaw. “Of course I do. When I’m here in the village. Why? You wonder what I look like under all this? I’m not always a dirtbag, you know.”

  “I’m just trying to see how much you look like Will.”

  He cringed. “Naturally you are. My brother got all the brains. And the looks and the modesty, come to think of it.”

  “You must have gotten something,” she argued.

  “I got the big feet.”

  She laughed again.

  “You keep looking away from me,” he said teasingly. “It’s very annoying. Here, let me take Spider.” He reached for the reins, but instead his fingers met hers, and instead of letting go, he held on.

  Her feet came to a stop, and still he didn’t let go. A tingling began in her fingers where her skin met his, completely unexpected, a live bit of current. Puzzled, she looked up at him.

  “Aren’t we not supposed to touch?” she said.

  He jerked back, releasing her as if burned.

/>   “I didn’t even think,” he said. His eyes blazed with dread.

  “It’s all right,” she said.

  “I’ve never done that to a mlass before,” he went on. “Not ever. You won’t accuse me?”

  “Of course not,” she said.

  “I’m sorry,” Peter said. “It won’t happen again.”

  As she looked at her hand, it was as if her own flesh suddenly turned scaly and dangerous. “You can’t touch me,” she said. “But can I touch you?”

  Peter’s lips parted in surprise. “You wouldn’t.”

  She let out a brief, self-conscious laugh, but the truth was, she couldn’t help noticing how the dappled sunlight landed along his tanned skin. Perversely, now that she knew she shouldn’t, she wanted to see if his forearm would feel as warm and smooth as it looked. Was that what it was like for him, knowing he couldn’t touch a girl? It made the curiosity worse.

  “Now you’re just being mean,” he said, half amazed.

  She reached to twist her fingers in Spider’s reins again. “I’m sorry.”

  “Not half as sorry as I am,” he said. Though he’d backed up, he was still studying her and his expressive features ran quickly through pleasure, humor, and regret. “Your eyes,” he said. “They’re almost black in this shade. Or maybe it’s that your eyelashes are so dark. Let me see.”

  She frowned, stepping a little closer to examine his eyes as well, and he took off his hat to let her inspect him better. His eyes had little rings of yellow around the pupils, but the outer rims of his irises were a clear, translucent blue. They were nothing like the intense, consistent blue of Leon’s eyes.

  “Yes,” Peter concluded quietly, still focused on her. “That’s what it is. Dark lashes. And long. But your eyes aren’t black at all. They’re brown.”

  A statement of fact had never sounded so much like a compliment. She blinked away, and lifted her hand to cool her warm cheek.

  “When you let me see them,” he added softly.

  She drew away from him and started forward again, returning to her far edge of the road with Spider behind her.

  He put his hat on. “Are we done talking?” he asked.

  She nodded. Absolutely. He laughed, and kept to his side of the road, leading his horse behind him. Yet even in silence it seemed to her like they were part of a dialogue, for their strides matched, and paced out a distinct harmony on the road.

  As they came around the next bend, she saw a familiar fence, and then the Chardo place with the pasture behind. The new section of the barn was complete but still unpainted, and though Gaia listened for the sound of hammering, there was none.

  “Glad to be home?” Gaia asked.

  “I’ve never been so glad.”

  The front door of the cabin opened, and four men came out, calling greetings. Will outdistanced the others to pull Peter into a back-slapping hug.

  “What are you doing here?” Will asked. “What have you brought?”

  He took the reins of Peter’s horse while the other two men enveloped Peter in a second series of hugs, and for the first time, Will glanced past the horse to Gaia.

  “Mlass Gaia,” he said, obviously surprised. “They’ve let you out of the lodge at last.”

  She nodded.

  Will took Spider’s reins from her. “Well, welcome! How long have you been out?”

  “Just now,” she said. “Just today.”

  “And you came here first thing?” Will asked.

  A tiny jerk of hesitation caught her, but she nodded again. “Peter said he was bringing you a body.”

  Will laughed. “That’s impossible to resist.” Will’s gaze flew to the body, then to Peter, then to her again, in an instant of assessment too quick for speech. “You can finally meet my father and my Uncle John,” Will said. “And Uncle John’s partner, my Uncle Fred.”

  The three older men were laughing at something Peter had said, but they turned now with welcoming smiles, and Gaia was introduced all around. Will’s father, Sid, was a shorter, older version of Will, with a weathered complexion, short gray hair, and a wiry build. Uncle John, Sid’s brother, was shorter still, with a round belly that bulged out the front of his overalls, a balding head, and a thick brown beard. Fred seemed a little younger, with a sweet, absent smile and dreamy dark eyes.

  “Such a pleasure,” Sid said. “Will’s told us so much about you. I think he was more eager for you to get out of the lodge than you were yourself.”

  “Dad,” Will said.

  “You can’t blame him,” Uncle John said. “It’s not every girl that’s got him transplanting half the garden for her.”

  The older men laughed again.

  Gaia glanced uneasily at Will. “Please tell me it wasn’t half the garden.”

  “They’re exaggerating,” Will said, apparently more happy than embarrassed.

  Peter looked from her to Will, then slowly back to her. “I didn’t realize you knew each other,” Peter said.

  “We don’t, really,” she said.

  “Not much at all yet,” Will agreed, his smile genuine and warm.

  Gaia could feel herself responding to his smile with real pleasure. Maybe we actually do know each other, she thought.

  She glanced back to Peter to find his eyes narrowed faintly, studying her with an unspoken question. An awkward, triangular moment hovered. Will shoved a hand in his back pocket, waiting it out. What was she supposed to say?

  Nothing, obviously. Like a dope.

  “Why don’t you come in?” Sid offered. “Have a glass of cool tea.”

  “You’re very kind,” she said. “But I really need to head back to help Norris get things ready for the banquet.” She wished there were a way to talk to Will alone in the barn and make sure he was over the trouble about the autopsy, but it was impossible with his family standing around.

  Gaia glanced once more at Peter, who still hadn’t moved.

  “Thanks again,” she said. “For bringing me in from the wasteland.”

  He lost his stiffness a little and smiled again. “Think nothing of it. See you at the games?”

  “Are you playing?” she asked. “I don’t really know how they work.”

  The older men smiled.

  “Of course I’m playing,” Peter said, and glanced at Will.

  “We both are,” Will said.

  She backed up another step. “Then I’ll see you both.”

  CHAPTER 10

  shirts and skins

  THE MATRARC’S DAUGHTER, Taja, came by the lodge kitchen after the banquet to collect Gaia. Norris had given Gaia a haircut and a rose-colored, hand-me-down blouse from his niece.

  “Ready?” Taja asked.

  Gaia had spoken to her only half a dozen times since she’d come to Sylum, and Gaia wondered how Taja felt about essentially babysitting her on her first real outing. She was a tall girl, a year older than Gaia, with square shoulders and strong, lean arms. She was purportedly deadly with an arrow, and her poised manner made Gaia want to stand up a little straighter herself.

  “Good luck tonight, Mlass Gaia,” Norris said as she moved to the door.

  “Good luck? Why?”

  Norris gave her one of his rare, avuncular smiles. “Getting chosen, of course.”

  Gaia vaguely recalled Josephine and Dinah telling her about the thirty-two games, but it hadn’t occurred to her she’d be eligible to be the prize.

  “Aren’t you coming?” Gaia asked Norris. “We can wait.”

  He waved them on. “I’ll take my time with the old peg. Go ahead. Try to have some fun.”

  When Gaia and Taja reached the playing field, many of the villagers were already there. The east side of the field dropped off toward a dramatic view of the marsh, and she could see the evening sky reflect in coruscating patches wherever open water collected. Men gathered on the grassy slopes that enclosed the other three sides of the field, with a few women interspersed among them. Gaia spotted Dinah, Josephine, and other libbies near the top of one
of the slopes, relaxing on blankets. Prominently figuring at the edge of the field on the half line, a wooden platform bedecked with colorful flags was slowly filling with important spectators: the Matrarc and her husband, Mlady Maudie, Mlady Roxanne, and a dozen other cuzines. Their families joined them. Over it all, the late October sun cast a golden, pearly light, and shadows were long on the green grass.

  “Do you want to sit on the platform?” Taja asked. “We can.”

  “I’d rather not.”

  Taja turned and led Gaia to an area above and to the left of the platform where they’d have a good view of the field. Taja dropped her blanket on the grass and patted a spot on her left for Gaia.

  “Here we go,” Taja said. She tucked her blue skirt around her knees and sat straight.

  “Do the mlasses ever play?” Gaia asked.

  “We play a lot of soccer, but the thirty-two games are just for men in the pool,” Taja said. “Do you play soccer?”

  “No. I wish I did,” Gaia said.

  “Another thing for you to learn here,” Taja said. Though her voice had none of her mother’s musicality, her dry, regal tone had a distinctive quality.

  “Here you are,” Peony said, coming up the slope. Her yellow dress was sunny in the evening light, and she’d brought a sweater. She sat to Gaia’s left as Gaia scooted over to give her more room on the blanket. “Glad to see you out,” Peony said casually.

  “Thanks.” Gaia had to remember to act like she hadn’t seen her just the night before and like she knew nothing special about her. “How’ve you been?”

  Peony slapped her own arm. “Good. They’d better light the torches soon or the mosquitoes will eat us alive.”

  As Gaia looked around for the torches, she noticed guards around the perimeter of the field, their black sashes conspicuous. Sword scabbards and no-nonsense clubs hung from their belts. Others were strategically posted near the platform. Still others fanned out across the playing field to create a controlled pathway, and the reason became clear as a double row of crims came up the path from the village, passing between the guards. Even with the distance, she could hear their chains in the grass.

 
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