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       Prized, p.19

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Surprised, Gaia turned to see Peter had remained back by the fence. All his normal casual grace was absent as he came forward in response to the summons.

  “Avoid me for three years, and then you show up here,” Adele said. “I believe you’ve grown a little taller even. Won’t you say hello?”

  “Hello, Mlady Adele,” Peter said. A muscle tensed in his jaw. “Have you been well?”

  “I have, as you see,” Adele replied. “Now, was that so hard?”

  “Don’t do this, Adele,” Bachsdatter said quietly.

  Gaia watched the unfolding exchange with amazement.

  Adele put her hands on her hips in a belligerent pose. “How’s your big brother?” she continued.

  “Will’s fine, thank you,” Peter said.

  “He never did marry, did he? I suppose there’s still hope for you, isn’t there?”

  Peter looked away, his ears red.

  Adele pointed at the letter. “Read it,” she commanded Peter abruptly. “I want you to be the one who tells me what the Matrarc says.”

  Peter slid a hand in his pocket. “I can’t read.”

  Adele laughed harshly. “That’s right, I forgot! Will’s the smart one in your family, isn’t he?”

  “You don’t need to harass him,” Gaia said, snatching the letter from Dinah. “I’ll read it.” She wasn’t the smoothest reader herself, but she spoke up for everyone to hear.

  My dearest Adele and Luke,

  I know you will greet this news with heavy hearts, but I plead with you to accept patiently what I must say. The bearer of this note, Leon Vlatir, has won the thirty-two games, and for his prize he claims a month with a female in the winner’s cabin, as is his right. He claims your daughter, Maya.

  The peace of our community now depends upon you. Vlatir, a newcomer, has been voted by the cuzines into full citizenship as a free man in Sylum, and I’m sure you can appreciate how delicate the situation is for all of us cuzines if we deny him the one privilege a man can legally claim. He has fairly won his prize. Indeed, he has overcome extraordinary obstacles to do so.

  Please bring your daughter to the winner’s cabin for one month. Your family will find no shortage of hospitality in Sylum. Alternatively, you can give Maya into Vlatir’s care for the requisite time. I promise you no harm will come to your daughter, and that I will be forever in your debt. You may choose any compensation that is within my power to give you to ease this sacrifice on your part.

  In peace,

  Olivia

  Matrarc

  Gaia glanced up as she finished and saw Adele sit down slowly on the stoop of her house. The change in her was sudden and complete, as if her essence had been erased.

  “No,” Adele said.

  “It’s all right,” Bachsdatter said. “We can close up here for a few weeks. I’ll come back to tend the animals. Or maybe I can get someone to come out. Barrett maybe.” He peered around the yard in a lost sort of way.

  “No,” Adele said again, more loudly. She lifted empty eyes to her husband. “I think I always knew we’d have to give her up. I’ve tried to shield my heart from her. I’ve tried.” She stopped, unable to go on.

  A small, soft wail came from inside the house.

  “Maya,” Gaia whispered.

  The cry came again, more plaintively. Gaia watched one moment longer to see if Adele would stir, if she would go inside to tend the crying baby like a loving mother would, but when Adele only leaned her head down into her arms, Gaia lurched past her and flung open the door.

  The darkness of the stone house’s foyer blinded her for a moment, but the cry came again from her left, and she squinted toward a small, low-ceilinged living room. The house was perched on the crest of the cliff, with a breathtaking view out a span of windows, but Gaia hardly noticed in her hurry toward the crib.

  A tiny baby lay in the blankets, her hands waving in distress, her little mouth wide in a silent cry that, when she sucked in another breath, burst from her again. By then, Gaia held Maya in her arms, and she caressed the little head and body soothingly, hushing her. Ineffable joy spiraled through Gaia, even as her heart ached for the tiny girl. After a last cry, the baby tucked her head into Gaia’s neck and made a soft, smacking noise.

  When Gaia turned, Leon was standing behind her, his hand on the doorjamb. Emotion welled up inside her, gratitude and sorrow and alarm.

  “She’s so light and small,” Gaia said.

  She stepped to the window with the baby to see her better. With growing anxiety, she wiggled her fingers into the blanket to extricate the spindly legs of the baby. Maya should be bigger by now, with more fat on her bones.

  Gaia peered at the baby’s ankle. Faint, smudged, and only partly visible were the marks she’d tried to tattoo in her sister’s skin the night she believed she was dying, only an hour before Peter had found them.

  “It’s really her,” Gaia said, rubbing her thumb over the little marks. When Maya’s gaze drifted toward Gaia’s face, Gaia saw her father looking out from the solemn, infant eyes. It was uncanny.

  “I don’t know much about babies,” Leon said, “but she doesn’t look any bigger than she did back in the Enclave.”

  “She’s not well at all,” Gaia said. “She should be stronger by now. Look, she’s almost three months old but she can hardly keep her head steady. Something’s wrong with her.”

  “What would cause that?” he asked.

  “Maybe Adele didn’t nurse her enough. Or maybe Adele’s milk doesn’t agree with her.” Gaia cast about for ideas, becoming increasingly irate. “Maybe she’s allergic to something here. I don’t really know, but she needs a change.”

  Leon came nearer, keeping his voice low. “You can’t accuse Mlady Adele of not nursing her enough. The woman’s distraught as it is.”

  “Leon, look at Maya!” Gaia said. She had to be mad at somebody, and who else but Adele?

  The little baby’s forehead was furrowing with distress, and she began to cry.

  “You’re upsetting her,” Leon said.

  Gaia spun away with the baby, cradling her near, and shushing her sweetly again. Her little, fuzz-covered head was so warm in Gaia’s fingers, and tenderness that Gaia hadn’t felt in weeks eased out of her sore, stymied heart, half breaking her open. She’d missed her sister more than she’d ever dreamed. What would her mother think if she knew she’d let Maya go out of her life?

  She turned toward the door. She was coldly furious at everything in sight.

  “What are you doing?” Leon said.

  “I want some answers.”

  He stepped in front of her to block her way.

  “It’s enough that we’re taking their baby,” Leon said. “Do not go out there like this. I mean it.”

  She blinked hard at his solid frame, wondering if he’d really make her push him out of her way, and then, with a crumpling sensation, she turned back.

  “I haven’t done anything right,” she said. “Not one, single thing since I got here. All those weeks wasted in the lodge! What was I thinking? I should have given in right from the start and bugged the Matrarc nonstop until she let me come out here to be with my sister. I should have found her a better wet nurse or weaned her onto something, like goat’s milk or rice milk or something.”

  She glanced over at Leon, half hoping he’d contradict her, but she could see he agreed.

  Looking at her sister again and the limp little way her fingers curled made Gaia want to cry. And she never cried. She hugged the baby tenderly against her chest, and fought back tears. She wished, for one awful minute, that Leon would hold her. She wished she could simply lean into him and have his arms around her, just this one time. He’d gotten his wish, after all, to carry her to shore. Shouldn’t she get one? When she needed him?

  Instead, he took a step backward, away from her. The distant, lonely sound of a goat bell tinked in the yard, and she looked past him toward the bright doorway.

  “Promise me you won’t be mean to Mlady Ade
le,” he said.

  “Now I’m the one being mean?” she asked. “You’re the one who came out here to take her baby.”

  “Should I change my mind? Do you want to leave Maya here?” he asked.

  She shook her head. There was no possible way she was leaving her sister on this island. “Did you know she’d be like this?”

  “No,” Leon said. He set a hand on a little yellow blanket that was resting over the back of a rocker. “I just knew that the Gaia I remembered needed her sister.”

  She lowered her face over the baby, holding her near, letting her hair hide her face from him.

  “Thank you,” she said softly.

  He gave the rocker a little push to set it in motion and then stepped to the door. “Think nothing of it,” he said, and let himself out.

  CHAPTER 17

  bow and stern

  ADELE NURSED MAYA once more in private while Gaia, Leon, Peter, and Dinah waited in the yard, watching the storm line progress slowly forward to cover half of the marsh in a dark, foreboding shadow. Wind came in fits, causing Gaia’s eyes to water. Bachsdatter came out finally, carrying the baby.

  “Adele and I are staying here,” he said. “She’s pregnant. There will always be a home for Maya with us here, but I can’t disrupt my wife any more.” He handed the baby in her yellow blanket gently to Leon, and then a bundle of clothes. “Some of her things,” Bachsdatter added, then stopped to clear his throat.

  “Come anytime to the winner’s cabin,” Leon said.

  Bachsdatter nodded. “There’s one more thing,” he said, passing a small book to Gaia.

  “What’s this?” she asked, turning the volume in her hand.

  “It’s the records of the marsh I kept for your grandmother. I kept them up for a while after she died, but not as frequently. I think you should have them. Some of the notes are hers, and I expect you don’t have much to remember her by.”

  She thumbed open the pages, seeing temperatures and other measurements, records of weather and storms. “What do they mean?”

  “She was always looking for evaporation patterns,” Bachsdatter said. “The only one that ever made sense to me was that the water was getting lower year over year, but anyone could see that.” He nodded at the clouds. “The storm made me think of it. That’s the sort of thing she wanted me to write down.” He looked once more at Maya, his deep-set eyes growing sad. “Go now. Quickly, please.”

  He said no more, but lifted a hand briefly in farewell and went back into the house. Gaia heard the muffled cry of Adele’s voice from inside, and turned rapidly toward the path that led back down to the water.

  “This is terrible,” Dinah said, following after her. “Vlatir was so nice on the way out here. I was sure he would change his mind about the baby.”

  “It’s simple. He has no heart,” Peter said.

  “Don’t say that,” Gaia snapped.

  “Leave it, Gaia,” Leon said.

  “And it’s not ‘Gaia’ here,” Peter added. “It’s ‘Mlass Gaia.’”

  Leon looked at Peter with obvious disdain. “If she tells me to call her ‘Mlass,’ naturally I’ll oblige her. Heads up.” He tossed Peter the bundle of baby things.

  Leon led the way down the steep path. On the shore, they hurried to flip the canoes and ready them in the water.

  “Can I have Maya?” Gaia asked Leon.

  He nodded, bringing the baby near. “Hold her tight,” he said.

  Without further preliminary, Leon lifted Gaia again into his arms. Gaia held her sister in one arm and curled the other around his neck as he stepped into the water. He aimed her into the bow so that her feet landed in the triangular space before the wooden seat. Then he released her, touching his hand along Maya’s blanket as he let them go.

  He spoke next to her ear. “All set?” he asked softly.

  She nodded, and since he was clearly waiting for her to look up, she did. He was very near. His expression was uncertain, curious, and then a satisfied light changed the opacity of his eyes.

  Dinah coughed conspicuously. “Don’t let us hurry you. All the time in the world.”

  Gaia looked down at little Maya and felt Leon straighten away. The canoe rocked slightly as Peter got in the stern, and then it jerked to life as he began to paddle. She kept her eyes on Maya, strangely aware that her pulse was still racing and that she was resisting an urge to look back for Leon. She adjusted her cloak around Maya, too, and watched as the baby was lulled by the rhythm and the watery noises until her little eyelids grew heavier. Gaia took a deep, even breath of her own.

  “Is she asleep?” Peter asked eventually.

  “Not quite. Soon, though.”

  Gaia caught her windblown hair out of her eyes and turned carefully on her seat so she could look back at Peter. He was concentrating on the water, sterning expertly through a narrow section, and she noted they’d already left the other canoe behind.

  She remembered what Adele had said. “Is it true you can’t read? Not at all?” Gaia asked.

  “Why does it matter?”

  She didn’t like to think he’d never had a chance to lose himself in a book. “It just does,” she said. “It says something about Sylum. So can you?”

  He kept paddling. “I never learned.”

  “Can you write?”

  “What’s your point, Mlass Gaia? You want me to feel stupid, like Mlady Adele? Because it’s working.”

  It wasn’t like that at all. “I’m sorry,” she said, startled.

  “Apology accepted.”

  She needed to be more careful with him, she realized. Just because he was strong and considerate all the time didn’t mean he couldn’t be hurt. “Will you tell me about your history with Mlady Adele?” she asked.

  “It’s over, is what it is.”

  That clinched it then. She should turn around and let him paddle in peace, she thought, or in anger as the case may be, but when she started to turn, she heard him muttering.

  “What?” she asked.

  “I’m curious about your past, too.”

  Gaia braced a hand on the gunwale and shifted her knee to a more secure place. “What do you want to know?”

  He shot his gaze briefly to hers, and then he paddled with strong, relentless strokes. “How did you ever get mixed up with someone like Vlatir? I don’t get it. He’s rude. He’s cruel. He jerks you around. Is that what you like?”

  “No. He’s not always like that. He never was before. Or, actually—” That wasn’t completely truthful, either. Leon had seemed cruel to her, back in the Enclave. Heartless, in fact. But then he’d changed, at least toward her. Now, with Adele, he’d used his cruelty on Gaia’s behalf. Was it wrong to be selfishly grateful for that?

  “This is strange for me,” she admitted. “Where I’m from, I was never considered special. No boys ever paid attention to me. I figured I’d always be alone, with my work as a midwife. That was enough for me.”

  “Until you met Vlatir?”

  She frowned, wondering how much to say. “There was nothing between us at first,” she said. “I didn’t even like him. But then, he began to change. He did things for me, like when I was in prison, sort of protecting me. Then he helped me unravel a code and get to my mother, who was also imprisoned.” There were many memories there, more than she could ever summarize for someone who wasn’t there. “He helped me, like now,” she said slowly, tracing Maya’s little hand. “Getting my sister back.”

  “You said he saved your life.”

  She nodded. “He did, when we were escaping the Enclave,” she said. “There was a moment, this unbelievable moment, when he was able to push me through a closing door. It saved me, while he was trapped. I didn’t know he planned to do it. But he did. I think—” She paused, struggling for the right words. Then her memory leapt back to earlier that same evening, and she could see the old Leon again, the one who had stood with her in an open doorway while the rain poured down just beyond, when there had been no reason to believe
either of them would survive the night. “Is that all you do? Respect me?” he’d said.

  She looked past Peter, back into the marsh, knowing the same person was back there now, no matter how different he seemed. “He must have cared for me more than I knew,” she said at last.

  Peter paddled another stroke and then paused. “Did you love him back?”

  The question made her go very quiet inside, listening. “I don’t know.”

  Peter’s laugh brought her back to the moment.

  “What’s so funny?” she asked.

  “It’s not so much funny. But no matter how powerful your gratitude and admiration are, they aren’t a promise,” he said. “He knows that.”

  We weren’t talking about promises, she thought. “You know, you can be pretty annoying.”

  He laughed again, sounding even more relieved. “So can you.”

  “Tell me about Mlady Adele.”

  “Like there. That’s annoying.”

  “I told you about me and Leon,” she argued.

  “You didn’t really,” he said.

  “I certainly did!”

  He smiled. “Not everything.”

  She closed her mouth primly. He would just have to use his imagination for the rest, such as it was.

  “Okay,” he said. “But Will won’t like it that I’m telling you. He hates this story.”

  If Will was involved, too, she had to know. “Tell me everything.”

  He squinted one eye against a gust of wind. “Mlady Adele used to be very different, nothing like she was today,” he began. “I mean, she was always intense, but she was happier. Very sweet and creative. She was always coming by the barn, and Will fell for her hard. This was a good three years ago, I’d say. In any case, I used to tease him about how she was going to ask him to marry her.” He shot her a quick grimace.

  “I take it that didn’t happen,” she said.

  “Worse. She asked me instead.”

  “But you—” She tried to calculate.

  “I know. I was sixteen. She’s only a couple years older than me, so the age difference wasn’t so strange, but I knew how Will felt about her.”

 
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