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       Prized, p.16

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  She pushed through the door and stepped softly to the railing beside him, where she could finally see his profile. His beard was gone. Instead of surveying the valley below, he had his eyes closed, and his fingers were clasped tight around the wooden railing. A row of colorful little pebbles was lined up along the top of the rail, as if the last occupants had left them there for a greeting, and they were incongruously playful in the early light.

  “Leon,” she began softly. “I can see you’re angry with me. I hardly know where to begin, but I’m so sorry.”

  “Don’t,” he said. “I don’t want your apologies.”

  She gulped back the rest of her words. But I am sorry, she thought. “Did you really cross the wasteland to find me?” she asked.

  Cleanly dressed and shaved, he should have looked more like the old Leon, but when he finally turned, dark bangs hung to half conceal his blue eyes, and his expression was openly hostile.

  “Believe me,” he said. “I regret it.”

  Her pulse jumped, and she swallowed thickly. “I never wanted you trapped here.”

  “That isn’t why.”

  “Isn’t there a chance you could be happy here, despite how you started?”

  He let out a broken laugh and ran a hand back through his hair in an old gesture she recognized.

  “This is what I don’t need yet,” he said. “You, talking to me. Asking your questions. I don’t want to say any of this.”

  “But I don’t want you to be so unhappy.”

  He shook his head. “Just don’t. You’re not the same person you were,” he said. “It’s not like I’m talking to the old Gaia. I can’t forget that.”

  What would you say to the old Gaia? “How do you know I’m so different?”

  His expression grew cooler still. “You burned my note, for one thing. That was hard to miss.”

  “Peony burned it.”

  “You let her. Same difference.”

  She didn’t know how to explain it, but her only pride, her last defiance had come from not breaking the rules of her confinement. “I couldn’t accept it,” she said. “As long as I didn’t step outside the lodge, I was still resisting the Matrarc. Your note was part of that.”

  “That’s ridiculous,” he said bluntly.

  It must seem like that, especially since she’d capitulated shortly after that. How could she explain how lonely and awful it had become in the lodge, how her last strength had vanished as she watched that scrap of paper burn? “It was your note that made me finally realize I had to give in.”

  “I don’t get it.”

  Gaia turned toward the marsh. “The Matrarc made me give up something. She wouldn’t let you out until I did.” She didn’t want to feel this hurt and confused again. She’d made her decision.

  “I’m entitled to know what she asked you for,” he said.

  She stared bleakly toward the horizon. “I helped someone miscarry her baby, and the Matrarc wanted to know who. She made me promise not to do it again.”

  “It was Peony, wasn’t it? That’s why she helped with the paper.” His eyes narrowed in amazement. “Why didn’t you just agree, Gaia? You could have agreed on day one, and then done whatever you wanted to secretly.”

  “Lied, you mean?”

  “Wasn’t letting me out of prison worth one lie? Why does the Matrarc even deserve your honesty?”

  He was confusing her more. Honesty came from within. It wasn’t what someone deserved. “You know how bad I am at lying, even if I wanted to,” she said. “Which I don’t. Even when I tried to be discreet about Peony’s miscarriage, the Matrarc knew about it in less than a day. I could never lie to her over years. Besides, I wanted her to see I wouldn’t give in. I wanted her to change her mind,” she said.

  “But then you did.”

  “I had to go on with living. I had to get you out.”

  The stillness came over him again, alarming her. He wasn’t satisfied with her answer. It wasn’t good enough, what she’d done, and he certainly wasn’t grateful. In the end, he hadn’t even needed her to get him out of prison. He’d done that himself by winning the thirty-two games.

  He peered over at her again. “Look at you. You used to be Gaia Stone from outside the wall. You had nothing to lose and nothing could stop you. Now you’re one of them.”

  “I’ve had to adjust, that’s all. I’m not especially proud of it.”

  “Why not be? You’re a girl now,” he said.

  “What are you implying?”

  “Just what I said. You’re a girl in a place where the girls rule.”

  She frowned. “You think I just want to be part of the ruling class.”

  “I’m sure you’ll find it very convenient.”

  She instinctively recoiled. Their positions were reversed, she realized, as neatly and completely as a flip of a card. In the Enclave, he’d been a person of privilege and power, while she’d been a poor midwife from outside the wall, entering it only to become a prisoner of Q cell, and finally a fugitive.

  “Now you know what it was like for me back at home,” she said.

  “I have just spent two months in prison, shackled to Malachai, for no reason at all,” he said. “I think I’ve got you beat.”

  “Really?” she demanded. “You think two months of prison beats years, no, generations of neglect and abuse?”

  “What do you think the men here have been putting up with?” Leon asked. “What do you think my future’s going to be like? No man here is free. Even if they’re not in jail, they’re still slaves.”

  “They are not,” she disagreed. “I’ve seen plenty of happy men here.”

  “Those are just the ones who’ve succeeded in pleasing some girl. The rest of them are all warped and stunted from trying to.”

  Now he was exaggerating. “That is totally untrue,” she said.

  He laughed strangely. “You don’t even see it anymore. That’s how myopic you’ve become.”

  “But you see everything clearly,” she said, getting her own edge of sarcasm. “At least there’s food and shelter for everybody here, not like in Wharfton, where you Enclave people doled out your meager drips of water for the rest of us, and spied on us, and killed the people who resisted you.”

  “Now we’re getting to it,” he said.

  “Just don’t try to tell me it was better there.”

  “I’ll concede it’s better here, for you,” he said.

  “It’s not just better for me! You’re like any other man of Sylum now. You can do anything you want: work, build a safe home, eat your fill. You can even marry and have children some day, if you can get someone to love you.”

  His eyes flashed darkly. “Yes. The Matrarc’s husband informed me I get to join the pool if my sperm are viable,” he said. “Naturally, I’ll have to be tested. He wants it done soon.”

  Embarrassed, she looked over the rail toward the distant marsh. “I’m sorry,” she muttered.

  “He’s sure it will just be a technicality,” he added. “And then, as you say, there’s the problem of getting anyone to love me. Even if the male-female odds weren’t ridiculously bad, there’s the fact of how utterly unlovable I am. Thanks for reminding me.”

  She looked down at the deck, wishing she could take it back. It was just that he could get her so mad. “I didn’t mean to say that,” she said.

  “But you did, didn’t you?”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “You apologize more than anyone I’ve ever known and it doesn’t fix a thing.”

  She poised a fist on her hip. “Then what do you expect me to say? You obviously hate everything here, but it’s our new home. I, for one, am trying to find a way to survive in it, and excuse me if I hope to find some measure of happiness.”

  “Didn’t you learn anything in the Enclave?” he asked. “A system that exploits any of its people is inherently unfair. Did you hear the men last night, when I asked them to vote?”

  “That was your fault.”

&nb
sp; “My fault? Gaia, wake up,” he said. “The men are not happy here. They might act like they are, they might even think that they are most of the time, but this whole place is a tinderbox. The right spark, and it would go up in flames.”

  “Are you going to be the one to destroy it?” she asked.

  “Why not? At the moment, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

  She didn’t believe he could destroy Sylum, but she didn’t like that he wanted to. “Is this what you were like when you first arrived?” she asked. “Is that why the Matrarc didn’t release you immediately? She normally holds newcomers in the prison only until she knows they aren’t dangerous.”

  He lifted one eyebrow ironically. “All it took was for them to see my back, and they started asking idiotic questions. I fought back when they tried to tie me, so they shackled me to Malachai. I refused to follow orders when some stupid guard tried to humiliate me, so then I was a discipline reject, which meant they could hit me all they wanted and stuff me in solitary. You never knew?”

  She found it difficult to meet his gaze. “Norris told me a little.”

  “A little,” he said quietly. For a long moment he searched her eyes, seeking deeply. “And still you left me there.”

  “I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

  He raked a hand back over his ear. “All that time, I was worried about you. I just wanted to see you and know you were okay.” His lips twisted. “When I heard you didn’t even read my note, I thought that was unbearable. But this—”

  For an instant, an ache of promise yawned before her, a glimpse of what had driven him to leave the Enclave and follow her into the wasteland.

  Suddenly he slammed his fist against the railing. She jumped in her skin. The pebbles trembled.

  “They took the guts out of you,” he said. “That’s the worst of it. I didn’t think anything ever could. Enough of this. I can’t talk to you anymore.”

  She backed up. “I was only trying to be honest with you,” she said. “But the more I try, the more you despise me.”

  He wouldn’t look at her. “I won’t lie.”

  An insidious pain knifed through her. She didn’t need this. She wished she could hurt him somehow, too. He seemed to know exactly what to say to make her feel awful about herself. A small, mean flame burned inside her.

  “Why is your back ripped up?” she asked, watching to see if the memory was painful to him.

  He lifted his left hand, splaying the fingers, and for the first time, she saw that the top of his ring finger from the knuckle up was gone.

  “They wanted to know where the ledgers were. The one we stole,” he said.

  “He tortured you? Your own father?”

  Leon’s eyes went flat and lifeless. “Until he saw that it hurt Genevieve worse than me.” He lowered his hand and resettled his grip on the railing. “Don’t misunderstand. He would never sully his hands with such work himself, but he routinely checked back in on me.” He ducked his head, turning his neck as if to relieve soreness there. “Resisting only delayed them, anyway. They checked on all your friends and figured out who had hidden you. They advanced Emily’s baby. You probably didn’t know that.”

  She shook her head, horrified.

  “He was a little old, but they took him anyway,” Leon continued. “Emily even gave back the birth records, but they still kept her son. They think she had a copy made.”

  Gaia didn’t want to believe him. “What can we do?”

  He let out a laugh. “That’s brilliant, really. You can’t do anything. You’re a wasteland away, in your precious new home.”

  She felt dirty, sick at heart. Trying to hurt him had backfired. She turned and paced to the far corner of the deck. He’d been hurt defying his father for her sake, and Gaia’s dearest friend had lost her child because of Gaia. The guilt was unendurable, and she couldn’t begin to imagine how Emily must be agonizing. She pressed a hand to her forehead and squeezed.

  “I’m pleased to see you still have some natural feelings of loyalty left in you,” Leon said finally. “Not that they’ve done me any good.”

  Raw, isolating loneliness swept into her. “Why are you doing this to me?”

  “You know perfectly well,” Leon said. “I risked my life for you back in the Enclave. I crossed a wasteland to find you, and you offered a horse to send me back. You left me in prison for months when one little lie would have set me free. Or don’t think back so far. Not twenty minutes ago, I told you point blank I wasn’t ready to see you. I didn’t want to say any of this, but you couldn’t leave me alone.”

  She was struck by his words. It was true. All of it. She turned slowly and gazed down to where his bare toes peeked from under the edge of his trousers.

  “If you feel that way about me, why did you choose Maya?” she asked.

  He looked as if he wouldn’t answer, and then he laughed in self-derision. “Suffice it to say, I thought it would help me get over you. I didn’t know it would work so fast.”

  She hugged her arms tight around herself, hurting. “For that purpose, you could have just chosen me,” she pointed out.

  “True. Funny thing. I couldn’t abide the idea of you being trapped as a prize in the winner’s house. With anyone.” He scooped up the row of pebbles and pelted one hard over the railing. “You seem to enjoy being trapped, though. I didn’t think of that.”

  She turned away again and blinked back a sting. “There’s nothing left between us at all, is there?” she asked.

  For a long moment he said nothing, and the pebbles made a clicking noise in his fingers.

  Then, as if it gave him no pleasure at all, he replied. “Whose fault is that?”

  CHAPTER 14

  riding double

  GAIA FALTERED BACK a step, registering his undisguised bitterness, and then she turned and strode back into the house. She didn’t stop until she’d gone out the front door and down the stone steps. Her inner compass had turned upside down. She’d thought she was a compassionate person trying always to do what was right, but one conversation with Leon had exposed her for what she was: ungrateful, disloyal, weak, and mean.

  She let out a laugh of disbelief and pressed a fist to her heart, where a crushing sensation made it hard to breathe. She felt a fierce, sudden longing for her mother, who would be nice to her and understand her and let her hide. How she longed to hide.

  “Mlass Gaia?”

  She glanced up. Chardo Peter was dismounting from Spider with a second horse trailing on a lead rope. The last shadows of dawn were dissolving with the mist, and sunlight touched the russet oak treetops behind him.

  “Are you all right?” Peter asked. “What are you doing here?”

  She didn’t see how she could talk to him.

  There was a noise behind her, and Leon stood at the top of the porch steps, carrying a pair of boots.

  “What did you do to her?” Peter asked him.

  “Wouldn’t you like to know?” Leon began shoving his feet in the boots.

  “Nothing,” she said quickly to Peter. “He didn’t do anything.”

  “If he touched you—” Peter began.

  “No. I said. He didn’t do anything,” she insisted.

  “Then why are you upset?” Peter asked.

  Gaia sent a look back toward Leon, who lifted his eyebrows slowly, mocking her. He stomped his heel in the boot, twisting his foot.

  Peter looked back and forth between the two of them. “I don’t understand,” he said.

  Gaia felt her cheeks turning a deep, guilty red.

  Leon came down the steps and reached for the second horse. “What’s its name?” Leon asked.

  “Hades,” Peter said.

  “Nice.” Leon swung into the saddle and pulled at the reins with natural command.

  “You won’t get lost?” Peter asked.

  “Don’t get your hopes up,” Leon said. “I’ll meet you at the shore in an hour, Gaia. That should give you enough
time to chat with your boyfriend. Hey!” he said, urging his horse forward with a sharp movement. They took off across the meadow.

  Gaia watched his brown shirt catch sunlight once, and then he disappeared in the trees. She slowly turned back to the porch and sat on the steps, sweeping her cloak beneath her to avoid the geraniums. Wearily, she dropped her face into her hands and pressed her cool fingertips against her warm eyelids.

  “What’s going on?” Peter asked quietly.

  “He just reminded me of some things. Some true things.”

  She sensed him standing just below the steps, watching her, yet she couldn’t bring herself to look at him.

  “Does the Matrarc know he was your lover?” Peter asked.

  That brought her head up. “He wasn’t my lover.”

  “You can tell me.”

  “No. He was never even my boyfriend,” she said. “We just went through a lot together,” she said. “You can’t think—Peter, I’ve never slept with anyone.”

  Peter sat slowly beside her on the top step.

  She frowned. “Have you?”

  “No,” he said. “I shouldn’t have asked. I just had my doubts after I saw you two together. You must have had quite a past with him.”

  “Well, we did. We do. We did.”

  “Which is it?”

  Gaia smoothed her skirt over her knees, wishing she knew the answer to that herself. It wasn’t what it used to be, but it didn’t feel over, either.

  “I don’t know,” she admitted.

  She should have felt strange having such a personal conversation with Peter, but none of the normal rules seemed to apply anymore. She glanced sideways at his fresh white shirt, at his clean hair in the morning light, and it hit her that she was sitting on the steps of the winner’s cabin, with Peter. This could have been them, for real, if he’d won.

  Peter would have had no compunction about claiming her for a prize. Of that she was certain. She didn’t know if that made him less or more noble than Leon.

  Spider nudged his big head down into the long grass beside the porch and switched his long tail.

  “This may seem a little strange,” Peter began. “But it’s a new life here for you. You can choose how you want it to be.”

 
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