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       Prized, p.17

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “I can’t choose who I am.”

  “Maybe you could,” he said. “You can at least choose who you spend your time with.”

  She shook her head, not certain of anything. “What if I don’t like who I’m becoming here?” she asked.

  “There’s nothing wrong with who you’re becoming. Nothing at all. Is that what he made you think?”

  She turned enough to really look at him, at the regular lines of his jaw and the even angles of his nose and cheekbones. Now that his beard was gone, she saw a pale scar, slightly longer than an eyelash, which marred the complexion of his right cheek like a permanent smile line. With wide-set, perceptive eyes, he watched her patiently, waiting. The truth was that Peter was an innately genuine, trustworthy person, and as she felt the strength of that, something inside her eased slightly, then lightened, like a tight band letting go.

  “You don’t care why the Matrarc kept me in the lodge or why she let me out, do you?” she asked.

  “Of course I care,” Peter said. “When you’re ready, I hope you’ll tell me. Until then, I know you did what you thought was right.”

  His answer made her feel a little better. Leon was wrong about her enjoying being trapped. She wasn’t trapped just because she’d joined the system. “Tell me something,” she asked. “Do you think I have a warped view of Sylum? Do I misuse what power I have because I’m a girl?”

  “Not at all,” he said. “I find you’re one of the most respectful mlasses I’ve ever known.”

  She felt a slip of disappointment. “You’re just comparing me to other girls here.”

  “What else can I do?”

  She twisted off one of the geranium petals. “I think it was a mistake, coming up here this morning.”

  “You shouldn’t be alone with him. The Matrarc doesn’t trust him.”

  “He’d never hurt me.”

  “It looks to me like he can hurt you just fine without lifting a finger,” he said. “How well are you sure you know him?”

  Of course she knew him. “He saved my life, Peter.”

  “So did I.”

  Startled, Gaia had to pause. It was true. She glanced out to the meadow, to where cornflowers made a dotted array of blue where the fog used to be. “Of course,” she said. “I owe you my thanks.”

  “I don’t mean it like that,” Peter said. “I just don’t want you to think he’s the only one.” He stood and walked over to Spider, who had wandered down the length of the porch, pulling grass in big mouthfuls. As he ran a hand along his horse’s neck, she absently watched the strong, silky motion.

  He was certainly easier to talk to than Leon. She dropped her crushed petal.

  “You need to start down to meet him soon,” Peter reminded her.

  “You don’t like him much, do you?”

  Peter did a subtle thing with one eyebrow that turned his expression both ironic and amused. “What do you think?” he asked. “Come on. Let’s go. Your sister’s waiting.” He brought Spider around and held out a hand to help her into the saddle. She hesitated, thinking of the taboo against touching, but his fingers beckoned toward her left boot. “It’s fine,” he said. “No one will see. I’m just handing you up.”

  She reached for the pommel, then gave him her left foot. On three, he bounced her lightly up into the saddle.

  “Good?” he asked.

  She shifted her skirt under her seat, aware that the fabric rode high up her legs, and the stirrups were too low for her boots unless she stretched on tiptoe. “Thanks.”

  As he took the reins to lead Spider, she frowned.

  “Aren’t you riding, too?” she asked.

  He looked up at her, clearly hesitating. “I guess I could as long as we’re in the forest.”

  “Wouldn’t it be faster?”

  Peter led the horse next to the steps and pulled himself up behind the saddle. She kept her back straight, expecting to feel the pressure of his chest behind her, or his legs behind her own, but he held himself in a way so that they didn’t touch.

  “All good?” he asked, the quiet voice behind her ear again. “You have no idea how many times I’ve thought of this.”

  She felt a shiver along her neck and took the reins herself. “Which way do we go?”

  The saddle moved with the rhythm of the horse beneath her, and she shifted along with it, quickly learning how to direct the horse. They descended down a different path, through the forest, and the silence of the morning was broken only by the sound of the horse’s footfalls on the packed earth and the bird notes from high above.

  When the path opened at the edge of the valley in view of the first cabin, Peter wordlessly slid off the back of the horse to walk beside her. She pulled on the reins to stop Spider.

  “What are you doing?” Peter asked.

  As she dismounted, her boots landed hard in the dust. “I can’t ride when you’re walking,” she said. “I feel like some sort of royalty.”

  “Dismounting is a political statement, then?”

  “Politics. Personal. It’s all the same here,” she said.

  “Exactly what I was thinking.” He smiled. “Or not.”

  She laughed.

  “There. Finally. A smile,” he said.

  She closed her lips again. He makes me happy, she thought, surprised by the discovery. It seemed like an important thing to know. She pulled off her cloak and folded it over her arm.

  “Thanks,” she said.

  “Feeling better now?”

  She nodded. “You’re good for me.” The words came spontaneously, and when his eyes lit up, she was glad she’d spoken.

  “Do you want me to go out to the island with you and Vlatir?” he offered. “I could.”

  “Really?” She liked the idea. “That would be nice.”

  They’d nearly reached the Chardo ranch, approaching the pasture from the back where the path narrowed through a shady area beside a fence. Gaia could see the back of the barn and the new addition.

  “Is Will home?” she asked.

  “Probably,” he said.

  Still holding Spider’s reins with one hand, he unlatched the gate and held it open for her. As she passed through before him, she inadvertently snagged her cloak on the post and paused to free it. She glanced up, ready to laugh, and found him close. Her mirth caught silently in her throat.

  The overarching branches of an autumn maple cast golden shadows and dollops of sunlight around them, and the light pooled in his blue eyes. He didn’t move, while the horse waited patiently behind him. “I don’t know how to say this,” Peter began. “But I feel something between us. Maybe the best thing I’ve ever felt.”

  She crumpled her cloak in her hands and told herself to keep moving through the gate, but she couldn’t. Some truth in what he was saying felt right to her. He released the horse’s reins, and then he let go of the gate, which creaked once on its hinge and stayed open. Deliberately, always watching her, he tugged at her cloak.

  “What are you doing?” she whispered, but she let him take it and fold it over the top of the gate.

  With one finger, he reached out to touch where her fingers were knotted together, and a spark shot into her, a tiny charge that changed how she breathed. She knew he wasn’t supposed to touch her, but he was making a deliberate choice to do so, and she was letting him. What are we doing? she thought, staring at the exact place where his finger met hers.

  Then he wrapped his index finger around hers, just one link, no more. She had to be nearer to him. She could trust Peter. She liked him. He never jerked her around emotionally or accused her of twisted, dark failings. She didn’t dare look up into his eyes, but all it took was for her to tug his finger, the tiniest bit, and he slid his strong arms around her.

  “I have wanted to hold you my whole life,” he said.

  She closed her eyes against his shoulder, breathing in the smell of sunlight in his shirt. “That first ride when I was asleep most of the time doesn’t count,” she reasoned. “You’v
e only known me since yesterday.”

  “That’s my whole life.”

  The strangest, most amazing thing was, she kind of knew what he meant. He certainly spoke as if he believed it, and she’d had very little of such sweetness. Instinctively, she knew what could happen if she tilted her face up, but she couldn’t guess yet how it would feel, how it would be different from with Leon. She wanted to find out. It would help. She lifted her gaze to see his sturdy chin first, and then his little scar again, and then his eyes, expectant and beaming. Peter audibly caught a breath between his lips, so she could almost see it hovering there in the gap.

  Spider whinnied.

  Peter’s arms reflexively tightened. Gaia glanced over, across the meadow, to where Chardo Will was standing at the back of the barn, a beam of lumber over his shoulder, his attention fixed in their direction.

  CHAPTER 15

  chicken

  PETER RELEASED HER. Embarrassed confusion erased her happiness, and then, when she realized the trouble Peter could face, fear set in.

  Will rested one end of the wooden beam on the ground, still looking at them. She kept hoping he’d leave, just go back into the barn, but he didn’t.

  “Will he tell?” Gaia asked.

  “I don’t think so. I don’t know.”

  “I’d never accuse you.”

  “It wouldn’t matter.” Peter tossed her cloak to her and drew Spider through the gate. “A witness is just as damning as a mlass’s accusation. I should have been more careful. I’ll talk to him.”

  “Wait, I’m coming, too,” she said, starting forward.

  “It would be better for you to go down to the marsh. I’ll join you as soon as I can.”

  “No. I’m not leaving you.”

  “Mlass, please.”

  She shook her head stubbornly and began marching across the pasture toward Will. If Will wanted a confrontation, he was going to get it.

  “It wasn’t your fault,” Gaia said. “Besides, nothing happened.”

  “Nothing did?” Peter said, striding beside her.

  “I mean. You know what I mean.”

  “I’m not sure I do,” he said.

  Will leaned the beam of wood against the barn wall as they reached him.

  “Hello, Mlass Gaia,” Will said cordially. “Why don’t you put Spider in the barn, Peter?”

  “Nothing happened, Will,” Peter said. “I have it on the best authority.”

  She met Peter’s shooting gaze, and could only conclude he was hurt.

  What? What did I do? We didn’t even kiss.

  “If you don’t mind, I’d like a word with Mlass Gaia,” Will said.

  “I’m still going with you out to the island,” Peter said to her.

  “Give us a minute, then,” she said.

  Peter took Spider around the corner of the barn at a rapid clip, but even after they were alone, Will said nothing. He merely looked at her, skeptical. Disappointed.

  A sort of frantic desperation rose inside her. “What?” she protested. “I couldn’t help it.”

  “You’d better,” Will said. “It’s no joke here. I don’t want to see him hurt. Or you.” He put a hand in his back pocket, lounging his weight on one leg. “It’s a lot for you. I get that. Especially with your old boyfriend in the game now, too.”

  “Why does no one believe he wasn’t my boyfriend?” she insisted.

  Will’s lips turned in a sardonic half-smile. “If you have to touch someone, just make sure you don’t do it in public. The rules are very clear. It can only lead to disaster.”

  He made it sound like she had to touch all sorts of people. “Duly noted,” she said, annoyed. “Will that be all?”

  Will glanced over his shoulder, then dropped his voice. “I’ve done three more autopsies.”

  It was the last thing she’d expected. “I thought the Matrarc told you not to.”

  “She wouldn’t let me quit being morteur,” Will said, “but I can’t not be curious now that I’ve started. Two more expools had uteruses, so Benny wasn’t just a freak anomaly. There could be a lot of others who do, too.”

  Gaia peered at him closely. “It’s systemic. Why? What could be causing it?”

  “That’s what I’ve wanted to ask you. Could it be genetic?”

  She wished she knew. Leon might. “It could be. It could also be some response to something in the environment.”

  “Something left over from the fish farm?” he asked. “I can’t think of anything else that used chemicals on a large scale here. But that water is long gone by now.”

  “Without a lab here, there’s no way to really find out,” she said.

  “I’d take any reasonable theory. It’s been driving me crazy.”

  Gaia frowned at the new planks of wood in the barn wall behind him. “I could ask Leon what he thinks. He knows more than I do about genes and epigenetics and such.”

  He shook his head. “Please don’t. I can’t have word get out.”

  She was about to say Leon was trustworthy, but then she realized she didn’t know that anymore. “Aren’t you going to tell the Matrarc?”

  “No.”

  Gaia turned and glanced uneasily across the meadow. “I know people trust you and we can’t undermine that, but we can tell her.”

  “She told me point blank not to do any more,” Will said. “I’m flagrantly disobeying her. The punishment for treason is exile.”

  “Then stop,” she said. Will was doing exactly what Leon had said Gaia should have done to get him out of prison: lie, and then secretly disobey. “Why did you tell me?”

  “Because you’re the only one I can tell,” he said. “We need answers.”

  “I don’t have any!”

  “Without a solution, we’ll die here. It might take a couple more generations, but that’s it.”

  “I think that’s the point,” she said. “I think that’s the Matrarc’s plan. Acceptance.”

  Will stared at her. “What did she do to you?”

  She lashed out a hand. “Not you, too. I’m fine, all right? I’m just following the Matrarc’s orders, like everybody else. And right now, I’m going out to the island for my sister. Let me just be grateful for that.”

  “I’m beginning to think gratitude is the opposite of curiosity,” Will said.

  His disapproval was obvious, and she didn’t like it.

  “That’s supposed to be an insult, isn’t it?” she said.

  His frown softened somewhat. He reached a hand around the back of his neck, and her gaze went to the small mole at the base of his throat. “I didn’t mean it to be,” he said. “I apologize.”

  “All right then.” She started away.

  “Wait,” he said. His brown eyes were troubled, and tension was obvious in every line of his body. “Don’t leave mad at me. The truth is, I’ve wanted to tell you something else, too, but I never see you alone.”

  She wrapped her arms around herself and waited grudgingly.

  Will cleared his throat. “I’m here for you, Mlass Gaia. That’s all,” he said. “Anything you need. Anytime.”

  When he said no more, the silence stretched, filling with bigger implications.

  “Will,” she said uncertainly.

  “I just thought you should know. You’re it for me.”

  It was not a small thing he was telling her. And his timing was horrible. Then his mouth curved in a slow, honest smile, and his warm eyes told her all that his words couldn’t.

  Leon made her so miserable she wanted to die. In Peter’s arms, she nearly liquefied. Will just had to smile, without even touching her, and she was purely confused. He certainly didn’t seem too old for her anymore, if she’d ever consciously thought he was. She took a big, gawky step backward. She’d heard of love triangles before, but a love square?

  “I can’t believe I told you,” he said.

  She let out a laugh. “Well, you did, and I really have to go.”

  “I know. Go. Run.”

  S
he hurried toward the road and broke into a sprint. Will! she thought. Peter. And even worse: Leon. She let out a little squeak and then banished them all to think only of her sister.

  Sunlight splashed around her in bright buckets of light as she ran in and out of the shade of the big trees, gripping her cloak around her arm. The familiar road curved past the lodge, then the willow and the pump, then past the smaller cabins. Soon the shore spread out before her, with morning light bright on the marsh, and the dark bulk of the prison in its yard on the right.

  As the breeze turned, she caught a whiff of sour ash, and saw the charred black remains of a bonfire with part of a burned stump still faintly smoking. A dozen men and women were grouped loosely beside a row of canoes that lay with their bottoms up, like giant, sleeping fish. Leon was among them, and a gust of wind blew to ripple his brown shirt and hair.

  “Ready to go?” he asked.

  “Aren’t we expecting a note from the Matrarc?” she asked.

  “I gave it to Vlatir already,” Dinah said. “We think someone went out last night to tell Mlady Adele’s family to be ready,” she said. “But officially, they haven’t heard yet.”

  “What if Mlady Adele doesn’t want to come?” Gaia asked.

  “She’ll still have to give up the baby,” Dinah said. “That’s why we were discussing more canoes. The Matrarc said she would rather keep the security here in the village if you don’t really need them.” She nodded to another group of men farther along the beach, and Gaia realized they were guards.

  If it came to taking Maya forcibly, Gaia didn’t want to be part of it. She had memories of taking babies to give to the authorities in the Enclave, and didn’t ever want to do anything like that again, not even to get her sister.

  “I don’t think I can do this,” Gaia said.

  “You’re coming,” Leon said flatly. “You do what the Matrarc tells you, remember?”

  It was true. She looked back up the road for Peter and was relieved to see him coming down the slope. “Peter offered to go with us,” she said.

  “At least one person in the canoe will know how to paddle, then,” Dinah said, amused.

 
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