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       Prized, p.2

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Gaia peered anxiously through the screen door, but already the others were out of sight. She tried to follow, but her legs were still too wobbly. “Where are they going? I need to be with my sister.”

  “She’s not your own child, then?” the Matrarc asked.

  “No. Of course not.” Gaia glanced at Chardo to find him regarding her with faint surprise, as if he had been operating under the same misassumption as the Matrarc. “I would never have been feeding her rabbit broth if I could have nursed her myself,” she said to him.

  “I didn’t know what to think,” he said.

  “Obviously, you’ve been through an ordeal,” the Matrarc cut in, lifting a hand. “Let me see your face.”

  Gaia backed against the railing to avoid the Matrarc’s touch. “No,” she said.

  “Ah!” said the Matrarc in surprise, dropping her hand.

  “Mlass, you need to cooperate with her,” Chardo said.

  Cooperating, Gaia had learned, could be dangerous. “I need to be with my sister,” she argued. “Take me to her and then I’ll cooperate.”

  The Matrarc drummed her fingers on top of her cane. “You have that backward, I’m afraid. How old are you? Where have you come from?”

  “I’m Gaia Stone,” she said. “I’m sixteen. I left Wharfton two weeks ago. Now let me in there. We’re wasting time.”

  A puzzled crease came to the Matrarc’s forehead. “Why do I know this name?” she asked. “Who are your parents?”

  “They were Bonnie and Jasper Stone.” A thought hit Gaia. “Do you know my grandmother, Danni Orion? Is she here?”

  The Matrarc touched her own necklace, and took a long moment before she replied. “Danni Orion was the Matrarc before me. I’m sorry to tell you she’s been dead these ten years now.”

  As the Matrarc released her necklace, Gaia saw the pendant clearly for the first time. It was a gilt-edged monocle, and the familiarity of it stunned her. Years ago, in one of her earliest memories, she’d seen the same monocle in the sunlight as her grandmother twisted it to dazzle her.

  “You have my grandmother’s monocle,” Gaia said in wonder. Gone was the chance to ever know her grandmother, replaced by a concrete truth: this was the place she’d been seeking for weeks in the wasteland, her grandmother’s home, the Dead Forest that Gaia’s mother and Old Meg had urged her to find. She gazed out at the big, shady trees and lush greens of the commons, proof that nothing here was dead except the possibility she would ever be reunited with Danni O.

  “Gaia Stone,” the Matrarc said slowly, testing the name. “Your grandmother told me about your family. A brother was taken away from you, I think. I remember now. They burned your face, didn’t they?”

  Everything inside Gaia slowed down, and she let her gaze drift up to the woman’s sightless eyes. It was beyond strange to come all this way and meet someone who knew, without seeing or touching her, that her face was scarred. She untucked the hair behind her left ear to let it slide forward.

  “Two brothers,” Gaia said, correcting her, as if it still mattered. “The Enclave took both of my brothers. One I’ve never met. The other left for the wasteland shortly before I did.”

  “Why weren’t you taken into the Enclave? I don’t understand.”

  “The burn scar kept me out of consideration for advancing or I might have been taken, too.”

  “Where are your parents now?” the Matrarc asked.

  “Dead, back in the Enclave. My father was murdered. My mother died giving birth to my sister.”

  “I’m sorry,” the Matrarc said.

  Gaia stared bleakly toward the screen door. “Please,” she said. “Let me go to my sister. I need to be sure she’s okay.”

  “You can’t do anything more for her, and there’s something we need to settle,” the Matrarc said. She made a gesture. “Bring her a chair.”

  Chardo fetched one from farther along the porch, and Gaia eased down upon it gripping the edge of the wooden seat.

  “Tell me something,” the Matrarc said. “Why did you go into the wasteland with a baby? Why would you risk her life?”

  “I didn’t have a choice,” Gaia said.

  “Maybe you didn’t for yourself,” the Matrarc said. “But why couldn’t you leave the baby behind? Surely someone in Wharfton would have cared for her.”

  Gaia’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. She had promised her mother to protect Maya, and for Gaia, that had meant staying together as a family. “I couldn’t leave her.”

  “Even knowing it was likely she would die?”

  Gaia shook her head. “You don’t understand. I had to take care of her. I didn’t know it would take us so long to cross the wasteland.” Then she remembered that her friend Emily had offered to care for Maya, and she’d refused. Had that been a mistake?

  “Or what you would find on the other side, I expect,” the Matrarc asked. “It was a terrible risk. A desperate, suicidal risk, in fact. Were you persecuted in your home? Were you a criminal or a rebel of some kind? Did you leave to escape the law?”

  Gaia looked uneasily at Chardo and the others.

  “I resisted the government in the Enclave,” she admitted. “But I didn’t cause any rebellion. I did what I thought was right. That’s all.”

  “‘That’s all’?” the Matrarc echoed, and then laughed. She pensively circled her cane tip against the floor while her eyes grew serious again. “You have a decision to make, Mlass Gaia. Staying in Sylum is like coming through a one-way gate. You can enter, but anyone who tries to leave Sylum dies. We don’t understand fully why this happens, but we find their bodies.”

  Gaia’s eyes grew wide. “I saw a corpse,” she said. “At the oasis two days ago. He was only recently dead. I was afraid it meant the water was poisonous.”

  “A middle-aged man with a full beard and glasses?” the Matrarc asked.

  “Dressed in gray,” Gaia said. It had both frightened her and given her hope that she was nearing civilization.

  “There’s your crim, Chardo,” the Matrarc said. She turned to Gaia. “He escaped from prison here four days ago. It happens to anyone who leaves. We’ve had nomads pass through, but if they stay with us even two days, the same thing happens.”

  Gaia had never heard of anything like it. “What could cause that? Is there a disease here?”

  “We think it’s something in the environment,” the Matrarc explained. “There’s an acclimation period while your body adjusts to being here, but after that, there’s no harm to those of us who stay. Beyond the obvious.”

  Frowning, Gaia gazed at the gathered crowd, trying to see what was so obvious. Aside from the man in the stocks and the Matrarc’s own blindness, the people looked healthy and fit. There were tall people and short, a few chubby ones, and none very skinny. Old men and young lounged nearby, with a fairly even distribution of skin tones, from pure black to birch white. There were plenty of children, and attire suggested a mix of affluent and poor.

  “What do you mean?” Gaia asked.

  Laughter came from the women on the porch. Gaia turned to Chardo, puzzled.

  “We don’t have many women here,” Chardo said. “Only one in ten babies is a girl.”

  Gaia looked around again in amazement, seeing how few women there were, mostly congregated on the veranda around the Matrarc. Out in the commons, nearly every face was masculine, and many had beards. Even the children were nearly all boys. How had she not noticed?

  “It’s more than that,” the Matrarc added. “The last girl was born here two years ago. And since then, only boys.”

  “How can that be?” Gaia asked.

  The Matrarc shrugged. “You don’t have to understand it to realize you need to make your choice. Leave today, or stay forever.”

  “But that’s no choice at all. Where would I go? How would I survive?”

  “There was a small community west of here a few years ago,” the Matrarc said. “And there are nomads who cycle through from the north. You could take your chances i
n either direction, or you could head back to your own home in the south.”

  Gaia couldn’t possibly go back, not in her weak condition. She could hardly stand. “I can’t go,” she said. “Besides, I’d never leave my sister behind.”

  “I thought you’d say so,” the Matrarc agreed. “Here’s the other side of your decision. If you stay, you must agree to follow the rules of our community. You might find them strict at first, but I assure you, they’re fair.”

  “I can put up with anything as long as I’m with my sister,” Gaia said.

  A faint breeze moved along the porch, and a tendril of white hair shifted across the Matrarc’s face. She smoothed it back, blinking. “Tell me,” the Matrarc said in her soft, lyrical voice. “What would have happened to the baby if Chardo Peter hadn’t found you?”

  Gaia swallowed back the thickness in her throat. “She was dying,” she admitted.

  The Matrarc nodded. She drummed her slender fingers around the top of her cane again. “She still might die. If we didn’t have a mother here to nurse her, she’d have no chance at all. Correct?”

  Gaia nodded.

  “Is that a yes?” the Matrarc pressed.

  Gaia didn’t like where this was going. The Matrarc’s gentle manners belied a quiet, unyielding brutality.

  “Mlass Gaia?” the Matrarc said, waiting. “Say it.”

  “Yes,” Gaia said. “My sister would be dead.”

  The Matrarc eased back slightly. “Then from now on, we will consider your sister to be a gift to Sylum. A small and precious gift. What’s more, in light of your gift, and depending on your compliance during your probation, we may pardon your crime.”

  “My crime?”

  “You knowingly, deliberately put your sister in deadly harm.”

  “You’re implying I tried to kill her,” Gaia said, rising stiffly in alarm. “I didn’t! I’ve done everything I could to keep her alive.”

  “You admitted yourself she would be dead without our intervention,” the Matrarc said. “You have forfeited any claim to the child. Your sister, the one you cared for, is dead. The only baby that’s alive is the one Chardo saved, and right now, she needs stable care and a new mother.”

  Gaia had a terrifying glimpse of what it must have been like for the mothers when she herself had taken their babies to be advanced to the Enclave. “Oh, please. Let me see her,” Gaia begged. “She could be dying right now. I need to hold her.”

  The Matrarc turned slightly, tapping her cane once on the wooden planks. “I’m sorry for your loss, of course. It’s terrible to lose a child.”

  She was speaking as if Maya were already dead.

  “You can’t do this!” Gaia said. “You don’t know what we’ve been through. I’ve lost everyone I care for.” Gaia impulsively grabbed the Matrarc’s cane, jerking it in protest. “You can’t steal my sister!”

  The Matrarc released her cane and lifted her hands, stepping back. “Take her.”

  Gaia was grabbed from behind and instantly dragged down the stairs. The cane fell rattling to the floorboards. Gaia’s arms were wrenched behind her while half a dozen men sprang between her and the Matrarc.

  “She’s my family!” Gaia shouted, struggling to break free. “I can’t lose her!”

  The Matrarc smoothed the tendril of her hair back again, and then held out her right hand, palm up, in a silent request. One of the men put the handle of her cane in her hand, and Gaia watched the Matrarc grip it with steely fingers.

  “I want her all the way down,” the Matrarc said.

  Gaia was pushed down so fast that her knees hit the ground hard, and she had to catch herself with her hands in the dirt. It was humiliating. Her chin was millimeters from the dusty ground. She was so weak that it didn’t take much for a guard’s heavy hand to keep her there, physically, while inside she screamed in defiance.

  “She’s down,” said Chardo, and she realized he was the one holding her there. She struggled once more, unbelieving. He’d been so gentle with her before, but now he had the force of a stone block.

  “You’ll listen to me, Mlass Gaia,” the Matrarc said, and her voice had dropped to a honey-smooth alto. “There is only one leader here. One. And I speak for everyone. You will learn to obey our rules, or you will be sent back to the wasteland to die.”

  “What would my grandmother think of the way you’re treating me?” Gaia demanded.

  “Mlady Danni would be the first to support me,” the Matrarc said. “She taught me everything I know. Chardo,” she called.

  “Yes, Mlady,” he said.

  “Where’s Munsch?”

  “I left him back at our camp. There wasn’t time to circle back to him.”

  “Return to him as soon as you can get a fresh horse. And keep an eye out for her brother or anyone else. I’ll send out extra patrols. I don’t for a minute believe she’s the only one out there. Something must have happened down south.”

  “Yes, Mlady,” he said.

  “Gaia Stone, are you ready to cooperate?” the Matrarc asked.

  Gaia ground her teeth. She would get her sister back, whatever it took. Groveling included. “Yes, Mlady,” she said, parroting Chardo’s words.

  “Bring her up, then,” the Matrarc said.

  At the first indication his grip was loosening, Gaia jerked free and staggered to her feet. She flashed a scathing gaze at Chardo. “You rescued me for this?”

  The outrider met her gaze without flinching, as if he wasn’t sorry at all. “It was the right thing to do.”

  The right thing. He’d known all along that the Matrarc would take her sister.

  Sylum was as bad as the Enclave. But the women were running it.

  CHAPTER 2

  libbies

  GAIA TURNED ON HER PILLOW, hearing the soft pattering of rain on leaves just outside her open window, and then she heard a faint cry in the night. She sat up slowly, listening, anxious that it might be Maya. A thin line of light glowed under the door.

  Since her encounter with the Matrarc that afternoon, the villagers hadn’t treated her poorly, but they’d kept her in the lodge, and Maya had clearly been moved elsewhere. They had run Gaia a bath while she ate a bowl of soup, and they’d provided a white cotton shirt and a beige skirt of soft homespun to replace her torn, dirty blue dress. As she swung her feet to the floor, she could feel the floorboards through the wool of new socks. Her boots were nowhere to be found.

  She listened intently until a second cry came floating through the rain, a wild, eerie, spiraling birdcall, as if the marsh itself had found a voice. Gaia shivered, then second-guessed if the earlier cry had truly belonged to a baby. She had to find out.

  Her sore muscles tightened as she first stood, and a faint groan hummed in her throat. Trying her door, she found it locked. She turned to push the window sash up higher and inspected the slats that crossed the opening in a grid, imprisoning her. Mist stirred against her face as she squinted, trying to see. The spaces were barely wider than the span of her hand, but as she tested the solidity of each slat, she found the two on the right side were loose at the nails, just waiting for a good shove. They gave with a crack.

  By twisting and squeezing through the tiny opening, she was free, and she dropped down into the soggy garden. Her socks were instantly soaked. She had no idea where to look first, or even how large the village was, but that didn’t deter her. She began with the cabins around the commons that had lit windows, peering inside, and progressed slowly downhill. For an hour, she succeeded only in getting drenched, and finally, shivering, she ducked under the shelter of a willow tree. A trace of unfamiliar tobacco smoke laced into the clean smell of the rain, and then a man on horseback slowly passed the willow.

  She didn’t want to get caught, nor did she want to give up. She listened as the horse’s splashing footfalls diminished into the distance. A flash of sheet lightning exposed the marsh in a vast, black-and-white landscape, desolate and alive. Hoping for more lightning, she peered into the darkness,
and then, as the thunder rumbled away, Gaia heard another cry, only it wasn’t a baby or a birdcall this time. It was the moaning cry of a woman in labor.

  For an instant she froze, her inner strings reverberating with the familiar sound, and then she was hurrying down a lane toward the echo of the cry. She didn’t stop until she arrived on the narrow porch of a peak-roofed, one-story cabin, where the cry came again. As it faded away, she knocked loudly on the frame of the screen door.

  “Will?” called a woman’s voice from inside.

  “It’s Gaia Stone,” she called. She blinked back the raindrops on her lashes and waited.

  Nobody came. Gaia peered through the screen into the high-ceilinged room, noticing that shelves of books ran waist-high all the way around the walls. More volumes were piled high on the mantel over the fireplace. A lamp with a rose-colored shade was burning on a table. She stripped off her muddy socks and tried to shake off some of the rain that dripped from her arms and hair. When still no one came, she pulled softly at the screen door and stepped inside, hearing the rush of the rain on the steep roof above.

  “Hello?” she called again.

  She tiptoed down a short hallway to a curtained doorway. She fingered the curtain aside to find a tableau of contrasts: a slender, red-haired woman in tidy brown trousers and a white, delicately pleated blouse stood beside a bed where a distraught, disheveled, pregnant girl was clenched in the pain of childbirth.

  The woman’s gaze traveled from Gaia’s soaked clothes to her muddy feet. Her lips curved. “Sure you have the right party?”

  Gaia laughed, rolling back her wet sleeves. “What’s her name? How long has she been in labor?”

  “This is Mx. Josephine. She started just after lunch. I’m Mx. Dinah. Welcome.”

  Josephine’s face was dusky and flushed, her eyes half wild with fear. In a sweat-soaked, gray nightgown, she curled to her side in a thrashing motion.

  “Oh, no!” Josephine said. She wiped a strand of black hair out of her mouth in a panicky gesture. “Here comes another one. Mx. Dinah, help me!” She grabbed for Dinah’s hand and held her breath, gritting her teeth for one long, torturous suspension of time.

 
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