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       Prized, p.14

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  Two players leapt into the air, straining toward the ball, and a nasty cracking noise came as they collided and fell sprawling to the ground. The ref blew his whistle. Munsch lay still while the bare-chested player slowly sat up, blinking.

  On the platform, the Matrarc stood. “Is there blood?” she called.

  “Yes,” called the ref. “Munsch is down, and Sundberg. They hit heads.” He waved in a few of the other athletes to lend a hand.

  “Bring them here. Where are Mlass Gaia and Mx. Dinah?” the Matrarc said.

  “I’m here,” Gaia called, moving forward.

  Munsch was moving now, slowly rolling over on the grass, and he touched a palm tenderly to his forehead. Sundberg came to his feet and gave him a hand up, and with the others, the two walked slowly to the sideline before the platform. The crowd applauded out of respect.

  “Resume play,” called the Matrarc with a wave. “Mlass Gaia, take a look. See if there’s anything you can do.”

  Gaia heard the ref’s whistle and the action starting up again behind her. Sundberg was already looking better, but Munsch had a cut on his forehead, and a bruise was forming under his skin. His eyes seemed fine and he said he wasn’t nauseous, but he looked a little dazed. One of the guards passed Gaia a basket of bandages and a bottle of water, and as she started dabbing at Munsch’s cut, Dinah came up beside her.

  “How are they?” Dinah said.

  “I’m okay,” Munsch said. “Just let me be for a minute. I want to watch.”

  “Hold still,” Gaia said, and finished cleaning his wound.

  “That crim’s fast,” Sundberg said.

  Gaia glanced over her shoulder, then sat beside Munsch. The Skins captain had repositioned Leon to play forward. Only six men were left on the field, and it was now obvious to Gaia that though Leon’s skills were decent, they weren’t the best. What he had was speed.

  On an inbound throw, Leon intercepted the ball and crossed it to his captain, who took a long, risky shot from way out. The deepest Shirts player ran it down, passed it up to Xave, and the Shirts began a punishing series of passes to move up the field again, dominating Leon’s team. The crowd revved, voices massing into a wordless wall of sound as Xave closed in on scoring range

  The Skins captain began to backpedal defensively toward his own goal.

  “No! Forward!” Leon yelled, driving forward to cut off the angle.

  Xave powered a shot high and wide over Leon’s teammate’s head into the goal.

  The crowd jumped to their feet in a deafening roar of cheers. Gaia shifted her gaze from the ball in the net to Leon, who stood with his hands on his hips, his head down, his body working for breath. She felt the crush of vicarious defeat. A corps of guards was already moving onto the field to isolate him.

  Leon lifted his head and looked over his shoulder toward the Matrarc. He wiped his forehead with his arm, and then, deliberately, he started walking toward the platform. It took the startled guards two seconds to respond, and then they circled tight around him. Leon made a grab for a guard’s sword, but was instantly wrestled to the ground and pinned there.

  Gaia couldn’t see because the players were crowding in on the commotion. Peter was talking to the ref, pointing to Leon.

  “What’s going on?” Dinah asked.

  “Peter’s picking the crim, that’s what,” Munsch said with a laugh. “It’s an insult to Xave and the other players.”

  “I don’t understand,” Gaia said.

  The guards still held Leon to the ground.

  “Xave won, so that makes Peter the other captain,” Munsch explained. “Normally, they’d each pick one new teammate, but there’s only one left since I’m out injured. Peter gets to pick a Skins loser instead, and he’s picking the crim. It’s diabolical. The other losers want to kill him. I don’t blame them.”

  “We want the crim!” the crowd chanted.

  Boys ran out with water bottles. Xave drank a long swallow and dumped the rest of the water on his upturned face while Peter, animated, continued to talk to the ref.

  “Let’s go,” Xave said. He clapped a sure hand on the shoulder of his Shirts teammate. “Give Chardo the filthy crim, and let’s get this over with.”

  The crowd laughed. The ref pointed his whistle at Leon. The guards lifted Leon to his feet, untied his hands, and marched off the field.

  Leon walked to join Peter on the O. Peter pulled off his shirt, and his torso twisted in a supple economy of motion as he tossed it to a runner. Leon stood listening, rubbing his wrist, while Peter spoke in his ear. Gaia peered at the two shirtless men, trying to see what made them, nearly the same height and age, so different, and where Leon’s stance was cautious, intense, coiled, Peter’s personified an eager, magnanimous confidence.

  “They are sweet, those two. No doubt about it,” Dinah said, drawing out the syllables. “Where were they ten years ago is what I’d like to know.”

  “Mx. Dinah!” Munsch said.

  “Mlass Gaia knows what I’m talking about,” Dinah said.

  She did indeed. She might be too polite to say anything, but she was far from blind.

  The ref was lifting the ball.

  As Xave and his teammate squared off against Peter and Leon, a cloud moved across the setting sun, dimming the light and shooting streaks of orange into the greeny blue of the sky. A slow wind came up from the marsh, audibly rippling the flags of the platform and lifting sparks from the torches that burned and smoked around the field.

  Gaia forgot to breathe, and the ref dropped the ball.

  Xave was fast. Leon was faster. He shot the ball wide to Peter, who pelted it down the field toward the goal. And it went in.

  It was so sudden and unexpected that the spectators were silent a full two seconds. Then they went nuts.

  Xave and his Shirts teammate stalked off the field to join the growing line of other eliminated players. Peter walked quickly to the O on the field, the last captain and sole remaining player of the Skins team. Leon strode to the X, where a boy ran out with a shirt. The gray material, ripped during an earlier round, clung in tatters to his sweaty back as he faced Peter, who was already crouching slightly, ready to spring.

  It came down to this, one man against the other. Whoever won this point would win the entire game. Peter was the more skilled player by far, but Leon was faster, and Gaia sensed that Leon was hungry in a way that few had ever been before.

  “Wait ’til I release the ball,” the ref called. “Ready?”

  The crowd went still and the flags stopped rippling as Leon and Peter faced off, primed for explosive attack. A spark from a torch floated silently across the field.

  The ref lifted the ball high.

  It dropped toward the green grass.

  Grit and fury converged.

  Peter lost.



  THE SPECTATORS WENT BERSERK. Dozens of them rushed the field, where they mixed in pandemonium with the leaping, bounding athletes from the earlier rounds. The crims cheered even more wildly for one of their own. Men were throwing things in the air, kissing each other, hugging and slapping with unrestrained force, as if each one of them, personally, had scored the victory.

  Gaia was too stunned to move. Peony charged beside her and jostled Gaia practically off her feet.

  “Isn’t it amazing?” Peony squealed. “Can you believe he beat Chardo Peter? I can’t believe it!”

  “Look at Peter,” Dinah said dryly, joining them. “He can’t believe it, either. And Xave. He’s fit to be tied. I must say, that’s a beautiful sight.”

  “Yes!” Peony said.

  Half a dozen guards pushed onto the field, penetrating the congratulatory swarm around Leon and leveraging with their clubs to push the mob back.

  Gaia lost sight of Peter, too, in the mass of reaching arms, and still the cheering went on, like a crashing brilliance of sound around her. The center of the swarm on the field gradually began to move, then took up more speed as the
crowd delivered the winner and Peter to the area before the platform and a circle widened so they could be seen.

  Leon gave his belt a slow hitch up his hip. His straggly hair was nearly black with sweat above his joyless expression, and he was physically spent. Peter, loose-limbed and gleaming with sweat, bore the air of a good sport fairly beaten.

  The Matrarc lifted her hand. “My cousins!” she called out.

  The rest of the noise simmered to a ripple of laughter and talk, and then subsided so that all could hear. The Matrarc kept her hand lifted until even the quietest hum desisted.

  “My dear cousins,” the Matrarc repeated in a clear, strong voice. “We’ve never had a game like this before. Vlatir,” the Matrarc called out to him. “My husband tells me he’s never seen anyone run so fast. What do you have to say for yourself?”

  As Leon looked up, a furious, controlled burning emanated from him, a lethal tension that caused the guards to respond by pushing the rumbling crowd back, calling sharply to make more room.

  Dominic leaned close to the Matrarc to speak in her ear.

  “No, wait,” the Matrarc said to the guards. “Speak, Vlatir. I want to hear your voice.”

  Leon’s hand closed slowly in a fist at his side. “What would you have me say, Mlady Matrarc?”

  His voice had the same cultured accents Gaia remembered from before, but now with obvious insolence. Obvious, at least, to her. She guessed that the Matrarc heard it, too, though many in the crowd took his words for a joke and laughed.

  “We’ve never had a crim win our thirty-two games,” the Matrarc said, providing him no further opening. “Before we can proceed, the cuzines have to make a decision. Come forward so I can hear you, my cuzines. Step aside, please, the rest of you. I want the voters here.”

  She held out a graceful hand toward her left, like a great conductor, and the men cleared back to allow the mlasses and mladies to come forward. Gaia glanced around to see Dinah, who lifted an ironic eyebrow and shifted unobtrusively out of the way. The other libbies, likewise, were mixed in with Norris, Chardo Sid, and the other men.

  Peony pulled Gaia’s sleeve. “Come on,” she urged.

  Gaia followed with her, rising on tiptoe to keep an eye on Leon. She kept expecting him to acknowledge her, but he remained directed toward the Matrarc, as if no one else merited any attention. Nearly two hundred women now congregated on the field before the platform.

  “Are they ready?” the Matrarc asked her husband.


  “Then I want to hear them.” The Matrarc raised her voice. “I need a baseline, my cuzines. Say ‘Ay.’”

  The voices of the women rang out in one, cohesive call, startling Gaia with the power of their unity. The call was followed by silence, and then a new, smaller wave of murmuring. Norris’s scowl was as deep as Gaia had ever seen it. The men, excluded from the vote, were looking at each other, as if only now calculating their own numbers. She guessed that they’d never been assembled at a vote before, and it must strike them how many more of them there were, close to eighteen hundred men.

  Does the Matrarc not notice? Gaia wondered.

  Leon lifted his head, scanning the crowd beyond the platform.

  “We have a new situation before us,” the Matrarc said, in her clear, carrying voice. “The underlying assumption of letting a crim compete has always been that a crim winner would be freed.” She smiled. “We just never believed it could happen.”

  Laughter greeted her remark.

  “Vlatir is a newcomer of two months’ time, from the Enclave south of here,” the Matrarc continued. “He’s violent at the least provocation. He resists authority at every opportunity. He does not respond to any sort of discipline. But he is convicted of no crime, and you deserve to know this. You also saw him on the field today for what that shows of his character. So, this is your choice. We can accept this newcomer, Vlatir, into Sylum as any other man and confer upon him the rights of a winner, or we can deny him, keep him under watch with the crims, and grant the rights of the winner to the runner-up, Chardo Peter. What do you say?”

  Excited debate broke out, both among the women on the field and among the men farther out. Gaia stood staring at Leon, watching how he put one fist on his hip and kept regarding the Matrarc. From his unyielding expression, Gaia could not begin to know what he was thinking. It surprised her that he didn’t speak out on his own behalf, and then she wondered if she should.

  She swallowed a knot of nervous fear. Across the crowd, she spotted Will, who was watching her closely. When he nodded infinitesimally at Leon, he seemed to be asking her a tacit question. Gaia was supposed to act. She knew that. But what was she supposed to do?

  The Matrarc turned toward the women, expectant, and as the noise died away entirely, she lifted a hand.

  “Have you made your decisions?” she asked.

  “Ay,” called the women.

  “Wait!” Gaia called.

  Those around her turned, startled. She pushed her way to the front.

  “Wait,” Gaia repeated. “Please, Mlady.”

  “This is not the time, Mlass Gaia,” the Matrarc said.

  “I just have to say one thing,” Gaia declared. “Leon Vlatir’s a good man. A brave one. He came a long way to be here and he deserved Sylum’s hospitality, not its prison.” She turned to project her voice farther. “The Matrarc promised me she would free him tonight. You can make that come true. Vote him the winner.”

  There was a murmur in the crowd, and then a smattering of indulgent laughter. They were amused by her? She shot her gaze to Leon, who stood stern and mute, still not looking at her.

  “It seems he has a champion. And it’s true, I did say I’d free him, at least until he needs arresting again. I suspect that will be any moment now if he lives up to his past,” the Matrarc said, and more laughter followed. “For practical purposes, my cuzines, you are deciding between his status as a winner or a crim. Those in favor of denying Vlatir the rights of a winner, say ‘Nay.’”

  A chorus of “Nay” came from the women, and Gaia tried to guess how many had spoken. Was it more than half?

  The Matrarc raised her hand again. “Those in favor of granting Vlatir the rights of a winner, say ‘Ay.’”

  Gaia lifted her voice to join the second chorus from the women. “Ay!” reverberated around the playing field and echoed away out over the marsh, and Gaia knew instantly it was louder. Laughter and cheering erupted from the men. The crims at their end of the field cheered triumphantly.

  A small, strained smile turned Leon’s lips, and he took a step forward.

  Dominic spoke to the Matrarc, and she lifted her hand yet again, invoking silence. It took some time for the enthusiasm to be contained again.

  “Well, Vlatir?” she said. “You have something to say now?”

  “I do,” Leon said. He made a slow, all-encompassing gesture to the men who ranged up the slopes and around the perimeter of the women. Like quick-silver, a current charged through the men from one to another, uniting them in a silent summons they’d never heard before, and the air crackled with anticipation. “All of you men,” Leon called out. “If you’re in favor of my freedom, say ‘Ay!’”

  A lusty bellow of “Ay!” rose up in the air, ten times louder than the calls of the women.

  The following silence was deafening, ominous, and complete.

  Next came the slick metallic sound of blades as the guards drew their swords.

  “If you’re inciting a riot, your return to the prison will be swift indeed,” said the Matrarc.

  Leon folded his arms across his chest, and though his lips smiled, his eyes glittered maliciously. There were no fewer than ten blades pointed at his throat. “Forgive me, Mlady,” he said smoothly. “Living as I have with the crims, I haven’t yet fully learned your customs. No offense intended.” He lifted his voice to call to the men. “No riots tonight, my friends. Get that?”

  The crowd laughed, its virile good humor tempering a
darker undercurrent, and the Matrarc was quick to smile. “Lower your arms,” she called to the guards. “Vlatir. Do you understand what happens next?”

  “It’s my prerogative to claim a female to live with me in the winner’s cabin until the next games,” Leon said, his voice carrying clearly. “Correct?”

  Peter jerked forward half a step, as if he had only now realized the risk of keeping Leon in the game with him. Turning toward Gaia, he shook his head once and his lips parted in surprise, as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Gaia knew, then. She knew Leon was going to pick her. She searched for Will once more, and saw he was watching his brother with a pained expression. Will’s gaze shifted to meet Gaia’s, and the pain deepened.

  “That’s correct. Any mlass,” the Matrarc said. “It is the tradition at this point for the winner to invite three young women to step forward.”

  “There’s no need. I know who I want,” Leon said.

  Gaia reached for her locket watch, but it wasn’t there, and she had nothing to hold while she dreaded the next moment, and longed for it horribly. He still wasn’t looking at her, but she felt his attention as keenly as if he had an arrow notched in a bow, aiming for her chest.

  “No,” Peter said. He took a step toward Leon. “No, you can’t.” A guard blocked his path.

  “Who do you choose?” the Matrarc asked.

  Gaia stared at Leon, willing him to at least look at her before he called her name.

  “I want Maya Stone,” Leon said.

  Shock froze Gaia’s blood.

  “You mean Gaia,” the Matrarc said, her voice lifting in surprise. “Her name is Gaia Stone.”

  There was a shift around Gaia as people turned to get a look at her. Her heart lurched back into rhythm, nearly knocking her off her feet.

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