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       Prized, p.13

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “I didn’t know the crims would be here,” Gaia said, instantly alert and looking for Leon.

  “They always come,” Taja said.

  Seventy men or more, the crims kept crossing the field in their drab brown and gray garb. Most of their bearded faces were visible only in profile, and Gaia tried to narrow in on the ones with Leon’s height and build.

  “I wish the crims wouldn’t come,” Peony said. “They give me the creeps.”

  “Try motivating crims without any incentive and you won’t be so quick to say they don’t belong here,” Taja said.

  “There’s Malachai,” Peony said. “Remember him, Taja?”

  Gaia’s gaze shot to the tallest man, and walking beside him, linked by the chain on his ankle, was Leon. Her stomach dropped.

  “I remember Malachai. He killed his wife a few years back,” Taja said. “Sick guy. Poor Greta.”

  Peony spoke softly to Gaia. “I take it that’s your friend with him.”

  Gaia nodded.

  Leon’s dark hair had grown, and he walked with slumped, heavy shoulders that looked nothing like what she remembered. The chain caused a hitch in his stride as he worked to keep in synch with Malachai. She was shocked by how old he seemed, and when he and Malachai turned to sit in a row with the other crims, she could see hardly any of his face between his dark bangs and his dense beard.

  “Chardo’s waving at you, Mlass Gaia,” Peony said. “Look. In the red.”

  Gaia forced her gaze away from Leon and turned to the athletes occupying the center of the field, where a man was just lowering a hand. He lifted it again, and it took her an instant to recognize Peter without his beard. She was still too stunned from seeing Leon to be able to respond. Peter passed a ball to another man in a blue shirt, and Gaia realized he was Will.

  Gaia looked back at Leon, and despite the distance, she saw he was slowly, methodically scanning the crowd of spectators. It was only a matter of time before he would see her. He’d been stuck in the prison, all this time, because of her. He’d sent her a note, and she hadn’t even read it. Guilt swept through her and ignited an anxiety so intense, she feared she’d throw up.

  “Are you okay?” Peony asked her.

  She swallowed hard, nodding.

  The sound of a horn’s four-note melody carried through the air. The Matrarc stepped forward on the platform, and after a brief speech urging clean play all around, she opened the games.

  “The first thing you need to know is there are two teams,” Peony said. “The Shirts and the Skins, except the teams keep mixing up. And there are five rounds.”

  “They pick thirty-two players total to start with,” Taja said, leaning forward slightly. “After the first round, the winning team of sixteen players advances to the next round, and they get split into two teams of eight. Each round, the teams get smaller by half, until finally there are only two men left, and they compete against each other to see who wins.”

  Peony looked annoyed. “I was getting to that.”

  Taja pushed her blond hair behind her shoulder. “I’m sure you were.”

  Closely guarded, the crims seemed as relaxed and curious as the other spectators. Malachai was saying something to Leon, pointing to the field. Leon nodded, then returned to his methodical inspection of the crowd. Gaia shrank lower between Peony and Taja, dreading the moment he would find her. For some inexplicable reason, she didn’t want him to see her as she was, nicely dressed, with friends, ready for a game.

  A referee in a black shirt and shorts moved to the center of the field, and in response, the athletes ranged into a rough line before him, facing the crowd. They were agile, strong, handsome young men, and it took Gaia only an instant to realize the significance of what Taja had said: before them was the pool of Sylum, the men who could marry. It wasn’t enough that the athletes glowed with the confidence of youth and pulchritude, or that they’d come to play a game. They were answering an unspoken mandate to prove themselves, to compete visibly and physically before the scrutiny of their families and friends. No mlass could miss the significance, or the testosterone. It was clear in every move the men made, no matter how studied or nonchalant a gesture.

  A spontaneous rumbling began in the crowd and then rose to a cheer, before the athletes did anything at all, just because they were there. The primal nature of it all stirred something within Gaia, and she looked again to Leon.

  He had found her. He made no gesture, but across the distance, among the movement and commotion of the others, he alone sat completely still, a powerful, localized force focused exclusively on her. Time froze.

  Then he looked away.

  Gaia didn’t know she was holding her breath until she had to gasp for another one. Instinctively, she reached for Peony’s arm.

  “Pull it together,” Peony said quietly.

  The ref was raising his hand, and a tall man with lengthy brown curls came forward to stand on a white O that was marked on the field to the ref’s left.

  “That’s Larson Harry. He’s the first captain of the Skins,” Taja said. “The Larsons are carpenters. Good people.”

  With a flourish, Larson pulled off his shirt and tossed it to a boy who ran by for it.

  “And the captain of the Shirts is, surprise surprise, Walker Xave,” Taja said.

  Gaia felt Peony stiffen beside her. A clean-shaven blond man strode forward to an X marked on the field to the ref’s right.

  “Is he the Xave who’s the mother of Mx. Josephine’s baby?” Gaia asked.

  “Not according to him,” Taja said dryly.

  Xave shielded his eyes and turned toward the crowd, the picture of cocky arrogance, and there was a spattering of applause.

  “Now they pick,” Taja continued. “This is the important part. This is when we find out who gets to play.”

  People in the crowd started calling out the names of their favorite players. The captains were taking turns, picking one player at a time, and as the chosen players moved out to stand beside the captains, each team’s line grew longer. The Skins players all tossed their shirts to a pair of waiting boys.

  “Chardo Peter,” called Xave for his fourth pick.

  Peter ruffled the top of Will’s head as he passed, and walked out to Xave’s line, his red shirt bright among the blues, greens, and yellows. Peter stood with his weight back on one leg, his other knee bent in a relaxed, casual pose, but as he lifted both arms over his head and flexed them in a stretch, Gaia could almost see him buzzing with tension. This mattered to him.

  One of the loudest voices in the crowd became more insistent, calling out the name of a favorite player, and others joined in.

  A solid man with narrow shoulders and thick calves, the referee had a deadpan expression. He turned to face the rowdy crowd, saying nothing, and simply pointed to one section. A row of guards moved in.

  “All right! We get it, Ref!” called Norris from the back.

  “Quiet down, you morons!” Laughter rippled out from around him, and as quickly as that, the mood shifted. The guards eased back and the referee returned his attention to the field.

  Gaia turned, round-eyed to Peony. “Is it always like this?” Gaia asked.

  Peony brought her face close so she could answer without yelling. “There was a riot once. That’s why we have so many guards now.”

  Gaia looked out to the field again just as Will was picked for the Skins team. His movements were unhurried as he took off his shirt and passed it in. Will’s shoulders were powerful, his torso lean as he rested a fist on his hip. She remembered him building the coffin, and his respectful handling of Benny’s body, and the kind, silent way he’d planted herbs in the garden when she couldn’t even speak to thank him. This was still another side of him she was seeing.

  Was he playing in this game for her?

  “I always forget about the morteur,” Peony said idly. “He’s really kind of handsome, isn’t he?”

  “If you want to see handsome,” Taja said, “wait ’til his b
rother Peter takes his shirt off.”

  Gaia stared at her.

  “What?” Taja said and laughed. “It’s just part of the game. Try to have a little fun.”

  Gaia was not having fun. She had a bad feeling about the whole thing. Her skin kept prickling even though Leon wasn’t looking at her whenever she checked.

  Several more men were selected, and then it was time for Harry’s last pick for the Skins team. “Where’s Malachai?” he bellowed.

  As one, the crims came to their feet. They cheered, rattling their chains, pumping their arms in the air. The remaining athletes started a harsh booing noise.

  “Here we go,” Peony muttered.

  “What is it?” Gaia asked.

  “Each captain can pick one crim,” Taja said. “They don’t always, but the crims love it when they do.”

  With the exception of the other athletes who aspired to be chosen, the rest of the crowd apparently liked the crim choice, too. Several guards gathered around the big, dark-haired man, and after a moment’s delay while they released the shackle, Malachai strode onto the field. He came to stand beside the last man on Larson’s team and took off his shirt, revealing his massive arms and shoulders, hardened from physical labor.

  “How about you?” Larson called to Xave. “Who’s your last man?”

  The Shirts captain was surveying the crims, and then he raised his finger and pointed. “I’ll take Little Malachai,” Xave said.

  The noise of the crowd diminished as people tried to see whom he meant, but Gaia already knew. Her heart thudded heavily as Leon took one step toward the field and then stopped. His ankle was still caught in the chain.

  A guard stooped down beside him to release his shackle, and Leon waited, unmoving. The crowd was laughing because, superficially, Leon did look like a smaller version of Malachai, with similar unkempt dark hair and beard. Once free, he didn’t hurry but walked with long, slow strides to take his place on Xave’s team. Gone was his hunched shuffle. Leon’s shirt was threadbare and gray over his straight shoulders. Unlike the athletes, he wore work pants and rough shoes. He made no effort to stretch or warm up his muscles, as if he were too sore to move or too uncaring. He did not look again for Gaia in the crowd, but rather directed his unwavering attention toward the Matrarc’s platform. The crowd’s laughter died away.

  Gaia couldn’t take her eyes from him. Two things were clear from his proud stance: he agreed to play, and he despised them all.

  CHAPTER 11

  the thirty-two games

  SHE WAS ALREADY RISING.

  “Where do you think you’re going?” Taja said.

  Gaia started down the slope, winding through the sitting spectators. She had to get closer. There had to be a way to talk to him. Several guards started forward, preparing to intercept her at the edge of the field.

  “Come here,” Taja said, following after her and tugging her arm. “You’re blocking people’s view. You’re making a scene.”

  “I have to talk to him.”

  “Not now you don’t.” Taja pulled Gaia toward the platform and planted her along the side.

  “Let go of me,” Gaia said, pulling her sleeve free.

  “After the game,” Taja said. “You can see him then.” Peony caught up with them, carrying the blanket. “It’s okay, Mlass Gaia,” she said. “Just wait here with us.”

  “I need to see,” Gaia said impatiently.

  The ref was holding a soccer ball now, and a whistle dangled from his lips. Sixteen men on each team were ranged across the field: Skins on the left heading toward the south goal, and Xave’s team of Shirts on the right, facing north. Xave directed Leon to a defensive position near the goal. Peter was positioned as one of the Shirts’ center forwards. Will took a midfield position for the Skins. Like a great animal rolling in the sun, the crowd gave a slow, rippling shudder, and settled back to watch.

  The ref blew his whistle and dropped the ball. The Shirts team, led by Xave, quickly gained control and pushed forward.

  Leon began to walk, then jog in his zone of the field, keeping open in a position that echoed the movement of the ball. There was a lightness, a readiness that came to him as soon as the game commenced, and Gaia recalled he’d once told her he’d played soccer growing up. A Skins player gave a Shirts player a powerful shove, and the man pushed back, then twisted out of range in time to receive a pass and send it up to Xave. Up and down the field, the ball traveled in a zigzag of ricochets, while men shoved and flagrantly tripped each other.

  “Why doesn’t the ref call any of the fouls?” Gaia asked.

  Taja looked surprised. “What fouls?”

  I guess the rules are different, Gaia thought. It almost seemed there were none, other than that the players couldn’t use their hands on the ball. The ref blew his whistle only when the ball went out of bounds. During all the action, Malachai crouched like a bear off the corner of the goal, hardly moving, but when Will ripped a long pass up the field toward Malachai, the big, bare-chested man trapped it with a clumsy foot and lunged with it toward the goal. Leon closed in from the outside, effortlessly stole the ball from between the giant’s feet, and sent it back out, wide left, to an open shirts teammate.

  “Nice save, Little Malachai!” yelled a voice.

  Four seconds later, Xave drilled the ball into the net to score for the Shirts, and a burst of cheering filled the air.

  “That’s it?” Gaia asked.

  “That’s the end of round one,” Peony said, nodding. “All those Skins players? They’re eliminated.”

  Will stood panting, and then he turned with the other Skins players to leave the field. Four guards surrounded Malachai to escort him back to the crims’ section, where the nearest crims pounded him on the back and roughed his head until he shook them off.

  “Now what?” Gaia asked. “They pick again?”

  “Yes. See the new Skins captain?” Taja said. “Xave picked him first last time, so since they won, he’s the new opposing captain. There’s some strategy involved.”

  Out on the field, Xave was returning to the X spot as the continuing Shirts captain, and on the corresponding O, the new captain for the Skins team took off his shirt.

  The picking for the next round, two teams of eight, went rapidly, and Xave chose both Peter and Leon for his team. The intensity of the game changed significantly in round two as fewer players meant less of a scatter-shot mob style of attacking and more deliberate passing. Leon, again, played defense. It became clear, now, that Xave was a careful judge of where to position his players, and they passed around the Skins team with almost comic ease.

  “Your crim friend can play,” Peony said. “I think he’s missing a finger or something on his left hand. What is that, Mlass Gaia?”

  She didn’t know. She couldn’t bother to reply. She focused intently on Leon, trying to match what she was seeing with what she remembered of him, but it was like seeing a pebble that had always been dry and dusty suddenly thrown into a bowl of clear water. She’d never seen him run, never seen him with long dark hair flying, and fast as he was, he still seemed to be holding something back.

  Peter scored off a hard instep drive from fifteen meters out, and the Shirts won again. Gaia kept expecting Leon to look over and find her again. He didn’t.

  “Now it should start getting interesting,” Taja said, as the Skins players left the field and the others prepared for round three.

  There were eight men total remaining on the field now, for two teams of four. The next new captain of the Skins moved to the O and took off his yellow shirt. The others stood in a rough semicircle. Peter wiped the sweat from his face with the hem of his red shirt. Leon stood quietly, flat-footed, his arms loose at his sides, while a man with black curls bounced lightly on his feet beside him, clearly eager to get on with it.

  “That’s Munsch, that man by Little Malachai. You used to have a thing for him,” Taja said to Peony. “What happened to that?”

  “Nothing,” Peony said.
That was last year. He rides with Chardo Peter now, I think. Look. They’re choosing.”

  Xave chose Peter first for his Shirts team, and then Munsch and one other. The Skins captain chose Leon last.

  Leon walked slowly over to the Skins, pulling his gray shirt over his head, and for the first time, his chest was exposed to view.

  Gaia stared. She remembered Leon most in a precise black uniform, his skin protected from the damaging sunlight, a hat brim always shading his features. Even his hands had always been lighter than her own. Now his torso was tanned, and the orange-hued sunlight that washed across the field cleanly defined the taut lines of his muscled chest and lean belly. Gaia’s response was visceral and immediate.

  Then Leon turned his back to the crowd.

  It was clear, even from a distance, that scars mottled the skin across the back of his shoulders in a vivid, savage pattern of white and brown.

  Gaia felt sick. “No,” she whispered. Hushed murmurs were spreading through the crowd as others noticed, too, and a gasp came from one of the mladies on the platform.

  “That’s not right,” Peony said quietly.

  “No one’s been flogged like that here,” Taja said. “Not in ages. He must have come like that.”

  “Who would do that to him? Why?” Peony asked. “He must have done something awful. Really awful.” She turned expectantly to Gaia.

  But Gaia was unable to answer. She pressed her knuckles against her lips, hating this. She couldn’t bear to think of Leon being hurt. What if they’d done it to him back in the Enclave because of her?

  She’d left him in the Sylum prison.

  She hadn’t even accepted his note.

  “What have I done?” Gaia whispered. She turned to Peony, horrified. “What did you tell him about the note?”

  “I never spoke to your friend directly. I told Malachai’s brother the truth: that you refused to take it. Why?” Peony said. “Regrets?”

  Gaia could barely breathe. He must hate me.

  Round three began, four versus four, and this time Leon was playing defense for the Skins team, facing in Gaia’s direction from the far north end of the field. Fierce concentration ruled his features. Xave’s team tried to pass around the Skins like they had in the previous round, but Leon’s team was quick to anticipate, and a teammate passed back to Leon, who feinted right, then dribbled left, and popped the ball up high and hard toward the goal, perfectly arced for a header.

 
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