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       Prized, p.18

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Gaia hadn’t thought of that.

  “I can see I’ll have to get involved,” Dinah added. “Vlatir, I’ll go with you. Mlass Gaia and Peter can take a second canoe. I may be able to help with Mlady Adele and the baby anyway.”

  “Fine,” Leon said. Without another look at Gaia, he took an end of the nearest canoe to carry it into the water, and Dinah reached for the other.

  “Need a hand?” Peter called as he neared.

  “You’re bringing Mlass Gaia,” Dinah said. “We’ll meet you out there.”

  Dinah knotted her red shawl across her chest so it couldn’t slip free. With one quick, deft step into the water, she pushed off the canoe and settled in the stern. The wind caught the locks of her loose hair as she reached for her paddle, and with Leon in the bow, they pulled away from shore.

  It took only a few minutes for Gaia and Peter to get arranged in another canoe, with Gaia in the bow, and she held tight while he pushed off.

  “What do I do if we tip?” she asked.

  “Hold on to the canoe and we’ll swim it to one of the hillocks.”

  “I don’t swim,” she said.

  “What?”

  “I grew up by an unlake,” she said. “In a wasteland. Nobody swims there.” Gaia wedged her knees against the gunwales of the canoe to keep steady, and tentatively picked up her paddle.

  “I won’t let you tip.” His smile was audible in his voice. “Most places it’s so shallow you can stand anyway. Here. Watch what you’re doing.”

  Her paddle banged against the side of the canoe. “What am I doing wrong?” she asked, pivoting on her seat to see him behind her. His light brown hair was almost blond in the sunlight. “Shouldn’t you be wearing a hat in this sun?” she asked.

  “Where’s yours?”

  “I forgot it. I had my cloak when I left the lodge this morning.”

  “I forgot mine, too.” He jerked his chin up. “The clouds will help a little. You want to go, don’t you?”

  She did.

  “Then put your right hand down here, by the blade,” he explained, demonstrating with his own paddle. “And you keep your upper arm pretty much straight. Kind of roll with it. Use the power in your back and try to keep your strokes long and smooth.”

  “Like this?” she asked, trying. It felt different. Awkward.

  “Not so stiff. And if you keep the blade flat, parallel to the water to feather it forward again, it cuts through the wind.”

  “There isn’t that much wind.”

  “You like to argue, don’t you?”

  “I’m just saying,” she said, trying another stroke. The water felt like black syrup.

  “Air resistance instead of wind, then,” Peter said. “When we go faster, it matters more.”

  On her next stroke, the water seemed thinner, and she was surprised by how easily her paddle moved until she realized Peter was propelling the canoe from the stern. She had to pull harder to feel like she was making any contribution to their momentum, and soon the canoe was winding through the labyrinthine water trails of the marsh. Peter could steer them within centimeters of a muddy hillock of reeds and bushes without grazing it, and then turn the other way a few meters later.

  Gradually, they began to go faster. She liked the power of paddling, the rhythm of her strokes timed with Peter’s, and the smooth, graceful swiftness of the water below her blade. It felt so, so sweet to be moving and using her muscles for something besides cleaning or peeling potatoes.

  “Pace yourself, Mlass Gaia,” Peter said. “It’s going to take a while to get there.”

  She glanced ahead and couldn’t see the island at all.

  “It’s there,” he said, and she paused from paddling, looked back, and saw him pointing to his right. “The water path circles around this way,” he said, “and then back. Like an S with a few extra loops.”

  “Why does Mlady Adele’s family live out here?”

  “Mlady Adele’s mother and her mother before her always owned the island. Mlady Adele does now. Luke’s a bit of a loner, too, so I guess it suits them.”

  She untied her cloak and dropped it into the canoe behind her. The water made a hollow noise against the belly of the canoe, and she could smell the sun-warmed mud in the marsh.

  “What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a box fixed to a pole, coming out of a hillock.

  “That’s one of Luke’s station boxes,” Peter said. “He tracks water temperature and other things in the marsh. It was your grandmother who got him started. That was even before he married Adele and moved out here. I think he’s kept it up.”

  “What was he looking for?” Gaia asked, curious.

  “I don’t know, actually. You should drink,” he added.

  She pivoted to look back and saw him scooping with his hand.

  “Right out of the marsh?” she asked.

  “It won’t kill you,” he said, smiling. “Just don’t scoop up anything big.”

  She didn’t think he was joking. “But what about germs? Or fish poop? Don’t you need to boil it at least?”

  Peter laughed. “We do at home. But I never knew anyone to get sick from a little marsh water. Aren’t you thirsty?”

  She was, but she shook her head. “I’ll wait.”

  “You can’t swim, you like to argue, and now you’re afraid of a little fish poop?” He laughed again. “Remind me why I came along with you.”

  She looked doubtfully down into the water, peering through her own dim reflection, while the sound of him drinking made her even thirstier. She tentatively dipped her hand and tasted the cool water, surprised at its freshness. “It changes everything, having all this water,” she said. “You have no idea.”

  “How did you get water back in Wharfton?” he asked.

  “The Enclave drew up water at the geothermic plant, then purified it for us,” she said. “We got it from spigots in the wall.”

  “So you were completely dependent on them, weren’t you? Was there enough water for you?”

  She looked around at the marsh, and the seemingly endless supply of water right beneath the canoe. “Yes. Barely. I hauled it all the time.”

  “Did you ever think of digging your own wells?”

  “Actually, my dad had ideas about that. He thought we should go to the bottom of the unlake and start drilling there.” She remembered all the ingenious ways her dad had improved their home and garden. “But he never had time. Or a drill.”

  It was the first time she’d thought of him without a crushing sense of loss, she realized.

  “You miss him?” he asked.

  She nodded. “And my mother. But it’s a little better.” She looked around her again. “They would like it here.”

  He smiled gently. “I’m glad.”

  In the stillness, she heard the even notes of voices over water. She glanced back to see Peter wipe his wet fingers on his pants and reach for his paddle.

  “They’re not much farther ahead,” he said. “Want to catch them?”

  She did. The skin inside her thumb was raw, so she shifted her grip on her paddle as she pulled again. Most of the waterway was intricately twisted and narrow, but soon they came around another bend to find Dinah and Leon floating, their paddles across their knees, and the waterway beyond them opened up to a wider expanse five hundred meters long, like a proper lake.

  Dinah was laughing. Leon was peering dubiously into his cupped palm full of water, and then he drank. He looked more relaxed than Gaia had seen him yet.

  “Five-legged frogs,” Leon said. “Mx. Dinah thinks that’s normal.”

  “The wasteland boy thinks he knows more about the marsh than I do,” Dinah replied.

  Leon silently lifted his eyebrows, looking at Gaia for confirmation.

  “Five-legged frogs are definitely not normal,” Gaia said, smiling.

  Peter, Leon, and Dinah began to debate the issue. Gaia glanced across to where a black and white bird, finer than a duck, was silhouetted against the water.


  “Is that a loon?” she asked.

  “Yes,” Peter said. “And that’s the lily-poppy just behind it. That white flower.”

  Just then the loon dove, vanishing.

  “The weather’s turning,” Dinah said. “There’ll be lightning. We shouldn’t linger.”

  The sky overhead was still clear, but to the west behind them, a bank of clouds was gathering in a line that hardly appeared to move. This would be the second storm since she’d arrived, and she liked rain.

  “We don’t get much rain back home,” Gaia said. “It mostly comes in the winter.”

  “Rain is rare for us, too,” Peter said. “Those clouds could take all day to get here and then never rain.”

  Gaia glanced over to see that the canoes were even and she was head-to-head with Leon.

  “Beat you to the end,” she said impulsively, nodding down the clear, straight stretch of water.

  “Want to make it interesting?” Leon asked.

  “A bet?” she asked. She didn’t have any money. “What for?”

  “Winner gets a wish,” Leon said.

  “Who ever heard of a bet like that?” Dinah asked, laughing.

  “What kind of wish?” Gaia asked. It was such a whimsical idea coming from him.

  “Something small,” Leon said.

  Gaia glanced back at Peter, who shrugged.

  “I’m in,” Dinah said. “On your mark, get set, go!”

  They shot down the straightaway. Gaia pulled her paddle with all her might and plunged it in again, over and over. Skimming the dark water, the canoes barely seemed to touch the surface. Foam gurgled under the front of Gaia’s canoe. Her muscles burned, and she could see Leon’s canoe gaining a lead on her right. She pulled even harder. Bow to bow, they flew toward the end where the waterway turned abruptly. Unless one canoe pulled ahead to win, both would converge in a crash.

  Gaia didn’t care. She was laughing inside, fully alive and paddling for all she was worth.

  A wrenching drag caught back her canoe. Leon’s canoe shot past. Dinah’s laughter floated over the water and an instant later, the winning canoe was out of sight.

  Gaia lifted her paddle out of the water, and leaned forward over her knees, her heart pounding. Peter, she realized now, had obviously dragged his paddle to slow them at the last possible moment to avoid a collision.

  Now we know who the party-pooper is, she thought, and laughed, still gasping for breath. Peter began to paddle again, but Gaia didn’t. Her arm muscles burned too much.

  “That was fun,” she said, and turned.

  Peter’s cheeks were ruddy from exertion, and his blue eyes were brighter than ever, the color of the sky in front of the thunderheads.

  “Have you ever played chicken with Mx. Dinah before?” she added.

  “No. But I knew she wouldn’t stop. She has nothing to lose.”

  “That’s deep,” Gaia said, trying to look serious.

  He smiled at her. “I should have let us tip so you could drown. Are you going sit there like royalty?”

  “I’m thinking yes.”

  He made a motion to splash her and she laughed, gripping her paddle again.

  As they came around another bend, the island rose in a gentle slope to meet a limestone cliff, and then shot up. Wind-twisted trees abounded. Dinah and Leon were already on the rocks, pulling up the other canoe. As Peter maneuvered their own canoe close to the shore and her vantage point shifted, she looked up the cliff again, finally discerning the edge of a roof at the top. A more windblown, isolated spot would be hard to find.

  Gaia was about to step into the shallow water when Leon held out a hand.

  “Allow me,” he said.

  Surprised, she reached for his hand, but then he shifted. In a strong, fluid movement, Leon braced one arm behind her back, the other behind her knees, and swept her up into his arms to carry her to shore. Caught off guard, Gaia was even more startled by the sensation of hard contact where her clothing met his. When he set her on her feet, his hands secured her with a light touch around her waist to be sure she had her balance. Her lips parted, her locked breath started again, and she lifted questioning eyes to his. His blue irises gleamed steadily through his dark bangs.

  “You didn’t need—” she began.

  “Shh,” he said softly, letting her go. “Wish granted.”

  He strode back into the water to lift the bow of the canoe and pull it up on shore.

  That was your wish? To carry me ashore?

  She was in trouble.

  CHAPTER 16

  bachsdatters’ island

  “YOU ARE AWARE she could put you in the stocks for that,” Dinah said to Leon.

  “Is that so?” he said dryly, like he couldn’t care less, and handed Gaia her blue cloak.

  Gaia felt her cheeks warm with color. She looked rapidly from Dinah to Peter, silently begging them to keep the uncondoned contact secret. The hug she’d had with Peter only that morning leapt to mind, and she could see the memory of it in his eyes, too. Why had Leon’s maneuver felt even more intimate?

  “Don’t worry, girl,” Dinah said. “We don’t carry tales. I don’t suppose anybody cares about my wish.”

  Peter gave a forced laugh. “Of course we do. What is it?” The second canoe made a hollow noise as he inverted it on the stones.

  “I’d like a fire lit for me when I get home,” Dinah said, smoothing her hair back from her face so her wide gray eyes showed clearly. “I bet it will be raining by then, and if, for once, somebody else set a fire in the grate and got it going, that would be my wish.”

  Gaia glanced over at Dinah, who always struck her as so competent and independent, and yet here she had this quaint little request. She wondered if Dinah realized the lonely vulnerability she was revealing. Gaia glanced to Leon, who was regarding Dinah thoughtfully.

  “I’m on it,” Peter said.

  “Hello,” came a voice from behind them. “Mx. Dinah! Chardo! How are you?” A man strode forward, and Dinah made introductions.

  To Gaia, Bachsdatter Luke looked like an extension of the island itself. His worn, tidy clothes had been mended and washed so many times that they were the same weathered color as the stones on the beach. His beard was a soft brown, and his hair was tousled and stiff from the wind. Deep set and dark, his eyes gazed out from beneath straight black eyebrows.

  “And at last I meet Mlass Gaia,” he said. “Our daughter’s sister. Welcome.”

  “How is she?” Gaia asked.

  “Considering how fragile she was when she came to us, she’s all right. These haven’t been easy weeks.” Bachsdatter glanced toward Leon. “I know why you’ve come, but I can’t credit that you’ll really take our daughter from us. You look like a decent young man.”

  Leon didn’t smile. “I’m not.”

  Bachsdatter scratched slowly at his chin and then made a gesture to the sky. “Whatever we do should be decided before this storm. Come along.”

  They began to climb a steep path that was, in places, chiseled out of the rock, and Gaia looked back over the distance to see that Sylum was in shadow now. Around her the yellow birch leaves rippled with a rushing noise in the wind.

  At the top of the path, Gaia was surprised to find a little settlement of half a dozen stone structures. They seemed older than everything back in Sylum. An orchard and a garden lined the far eastern edge of the hilltop, and chickens and goats wandered freely. A fenced area enclosed one long, low stone house and a profusion of bright flowers.

  A woman was taking laundry off a line. Full-figured and strong, she nevertheless had a fragile, youthful profile. Her loose brown hair fluffed around her head as if made of spun silk and static electricity, and when she paused to face the visitors, Gaia saw her fine, narrow features were scattered with freckles.

  “Adele,” Bachsdatter called, opening the gate and leading them in. “Boles was right. We have visitors. Chardo and Mx. Dinah have brought out Vlatir and Mlass Gaia.”

  Adele t
ook one long look at Gaia, lifted her basket and turned for the house.

  “Adele, wait,” Bachsdatter said. “We have to at least listen to them.”

  “They’re not taking Maya,” Adele said. “Make them go. I don’t want them here.”

  Bachsdatter moved beside his wife and gently took the laundry basket from her. “We knew this could happen,” he said softly.

  “But she promised. Mlady Olivia promised!” Adele said.

  “You don’t have to be separated from your daughter,” Dinah said. “It’s only for a month. He wants Maya in the winner’s cabin, but you can go, too.”

  “And leave our home? Why? Because he has some fetish?” Adele asked.

  “I have no fetish. She’ll be well cared for.” Leon nodded toward Gaia. “I’ll do everything I can for her, and her sister will be there, too.”

  “Her sister,” Adele said, “nearly got her killed.”

  Gaia narrowed her eyes, looking more closely at Adele, taking in the sallowness of her complexion and the puffiness of her fingers. Shadows under Adele’s eyes told a tale of deep fatigue.

  “You’re nursing Maya, aren’t you?” Gaia asked.

  Adele looked affronted. “Of course.”

  Bachsdatter stepped forward. “Don’t you dare accuse her of neglecting Maya. If you could see what we’ve been through.”

  Gaia couldn’t be entirely sure without examining Adele more closely, but the wary, angry expression in Adele’s eyes confirmed what she suspected. Adele knew, even if Luke didn’t yet, that she was pregnant. For her own health, and for the child she was carrying, she should not be nursing.

  “Where is she?” Gaia asked.

  “She’s sleeping. You can’t disturb her,” Adele said.

  “We have a letter from the Matrarc,” Dinah said quietly. “Vlatir. Show them.”

  Leon uncrossed his arms and pulled a paper out of his trousers pocket. Dinah passed it over.

  “I won’t read it,” Adele said, as if it were poisoned.

  “Do you want me to, then?” Dinah offered, still holding it. “Don’t you care what Mlady Olivia has to say?”

  “Let the Chardo brother read it,” Adele said. “Come here, Chardo,” she added imperiously.

 
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