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       Prized, p.20

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “So you said no?” she guessed.

  Peter nodded, still paddling. “Adele’s pride was hurt more than anything else. Men like me don’t turn down women like her. But then she turned around and said she might as well take Will.”

  “Ouch,” she said. That had to sting. It didn’t take much to imagine Will a little younger, and idealistic, and disappointed.

  Peter made a humming noise in the back of his throat. “Yes.” “Just how old is your brother?” Gaia asked.

  “Now? He’s twenty-two.”

  “So what happened then?”

  “Well,” he said, drawing out the word. “Will said no, too. A week later, the Matrarc assigned me to the outriders and told Will he’d make a good morteur.”

  “He didn’t choose his job?” But he’s so good at it.

  Peter shook his head. “I know. He’s good at it. But it wasn’t raising horses like he wanted, and let’s face it: being a morteur ruined any chance any other woman would want him. He’s never had another offer. Never even come close.”

  Adele’s revenge seemed unfair to her. Gaia glanced down toward the inner ribs of the boat as she pondered Will’s predicament. She cared for Will. A lot. Just how much, she wasn’t sure, but she valued what he’d told her behind the barn. It meant even more now that she knew he’d been burned before.

  “Mlass Gaia?” Peter said slowly.

  She needed to concentrate. She was missing something about Will, something that didn’t quite make sense, and her cheeks were growing warm.

  “And you?” Gaia asked.

  He was still looking at her strangely. He’d stopped paddling.

  “I mean, you must be—” she stumbled over her own tongue. “The mlasses obviously like you,” she finished.

  But he was still gazing at her with a faint crease between his eyebrows.

  “You like my brother, don’t you?” he asked. He calculated further. “Does he know? Of course he does.”

  She huddled into her cloak. “You make it sound like I can’t like more than one person.”

  He let out a laugh. “He won’t talk about you. My dad’s always teasing him about you, and he won’t talk about you at all.”

  “Peter,” she began, but then realized she had no idea what to say. “I just got here a couple of months ago, and most of that time I spent in the lodge.” She laughed helplessly, trying to explain. “I still hardly know anybody here, except maybe Norris.”

  “And you’ve got Norris wrapped around your finger, too.”

  He began canoeing again in earnest, and when she turned forward again, she could see Sylum growing larger on the shore. He didn’t speak for a long time, and the reeds and lily-poppies passed in a steady blur of green and white. Then a hollow, knocking noise reverberated from the marsh behind them, followed by a ripple of Dinah’s laughter.

  “I said ‘J-stroke,’” came the libby’s voice, carrying clearly over the water. “It’s about finesse, not muscle. You’re not murdering the water.”

  Peter let the canoe glide silently forward. “They’ve switched positions,” he said. “She’s teaching him how to stern.”

  “Are you sure?”

  There was another bang, and then more of Dinah’s laughter. Apparently, she and Leon were getting along better again. Gaia listened intently, wondering if Leon was laughing, too. She’d never heard him laugh much. A frog croaked nearby.

  “The Matrarc’s asked me to stay in the village,” Peter said. “She wants extra guards around for security since Vlatir’s vote last night. She’s called in a dozen of the outriders.”

  Gaia turned to see him again. “She has?” Her mind sifted the possibilities. “It’s an opportunity for you, isn’t it? Even at a ratio of nine to one, there have to be more mlasses in the village than there are out on your patrol.”

  “I met one out there,” Peter said. “She turned out to be not so bad. I can’t quite get a read on her, though, especially now that I know she likes my brother and she’s reminding me I can meet other girls.”

  She was starting to blush again. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”

  “I’ve just never felt like I have so little control.”

  “You have to trust that things will work out all right,” she said, shifting on her hard seat. “Sometimes it’s not about control.”

  “Do you really believe that?” he asked.

  She thought a moment, hesitating. Maya’s eyelids were closed, and her tiny lashes splayed over her pale cheeks. Gaia stroked the soft skin wonderingly, noticing its contrast with her darker finger. A raindrop fell on the back of Gaia’s hand and magnified the pores. “Yes,” she said finally.

  “Mlass Gaia,” he said quietly, so that she looked cautiously up at him again. “I can see things are complicated for you. I’m not going to pressure you. But will you just promise me one thing? Will you please promise not to choose Vlatir while you’re up in the winner’s cabin?”

  Her eyes opened wide in amazement. “You can’t possibly mean what I think you’re saying.”

  “I see how he looks at you.”

  Nervous energy swarmed in her gut, and she shook her head decisively. “Half the time he despises me,” she said. “There’s no danger of me choosing him. None.” She tilted her face, peering at him, and nearly laughed.

  He shrugged. “Fine, then. Don’t promise.”

  He sent the canoe skimming around another corner.

  “Would it really make a difference to you?” she asked.

  “Let’s just say it’s not going to be fun for me, knowing you’re up there with him. My imagination is bad that way.”

  Looking up, Gaia saw the shore was not far ahead. A flicker of lightning lit the horizon, followed by a low growl of thunder. Soft plinks of isolated drops pattered the water around them in a gentle chorus.

  “All right,” she said. “This is the strangest promise I’ve ever made, but here goes: I won’t make any commitment to Leon while I’m up in the winner’s cabin. He won’t ask, either.”

  “That part’s not up to you.”

  “It still won’t happen,” she said. “I know him.”

  “Exactly. That’s what concerns me.”

  Gaia tucked her sister more securely into her cloak and hovered over her to shelter her from the raindrops. She wondered if Peter would tell his brother about the promise, and considered it best not to ask. Peter drove his paddle deeply into the water, and the canoe shot forward around the last curve, skimming over the open water before Sylum just as the rain began to fall in earnest.

  The other canoe caught up with them shortly after they reached shore, and with a final nod to Gaia, Peter went off with Dinah to take care of her wish about a fire. Gaia wanted to find Josephine as soon as possible, and Leon accompanied her to a part of Sylum Gaia had never seen before, where the cabins became smaller, as if beaten down by the rain. Men lingered under porch awnings, smoking, and watched wordlessly as they passed.

  Down one muddy lane, the cabins became smaller still, until they were little more than shacks. The last one, hardly bigger than Gaia’s chicken coop back home in Wharfton, had a wispy trail of wood smoke coming out of a pipe in the roof. A dark cliff rose up behind the cabin, and rain fell loudly on an overturned washtub by the door.

  “You think this is it?” Gaia asked, and Leon nodded.

  “It’s what Dinah described.”

  She settled Maya in her left arm and stepped forward to rap on the wooden door. No response came. Gaia looked at Leon, listening, and then she rapped again, harder, to be heard over the noise of the rain. There was a bumping noise from within, then a softer shuffling before the door opened. A shirtless man held the door wide and scowled.

  “Yeah? What do you want?” He scanned his eyes up and down Gaia, then eyed Leon. “You’re that crim, aren’t you?”

  “Is it for me?” asked a voice behind him.

  “I’d say so,” the man said, scratching his hairy chest. “Sure enough isn’t company
for Jezebel.” The man hocked and spat out the door, narrowly missing Leon’s boot. He moved out of the way as Josephine stepped into view, neatly if poorly dressed in a pale, loose shirt and gray trousers. She smiled in surprise.

  “Mlass Gaia! What are you doing here? Don’t mind Bill. He’s my roommate’s boyfriend, and a more piggish person would be hard to find.”

  “I heard that,” came from the interior. “Where’s my chaw? I just had it.”

  “How many of you live here?” Gaia asked, unable to mask her astonishment.

  “Three and a half. The half’s Bill.”

  “I heard that,” came from the interior.

  Josephine rolled her eyes. “What can I do for you?”

  It turned out it wasn’t hard to persuade Josephine to relocate to the winner’s cabin and help nurse Maya. Josephine scooped up a few essentials, wrapped her daughter in a blanket, and headed out with Gaia and Leon.

  CHAPTER 18

  the winner’s cabin

  LIFE IN THE WINNER’S CABIN gradually fell into a routine for Gaia, Josephine, Leon, and the babies. At first, Josephine was openly happy to take on the extra nursing of little Maya, rising to the demand with generosity and endearing modesty. But after three days and nights with little sleep between the feeding demands of the two infants, Josephine settled into weary determination. She drank and ate copiously and napped as often as she could, leaving diaper-changing, burping, and soothing of both babies to Gaia and Leon.

  “Just call me a cow,” Josephine said in her matter-of-fact way. “I don’t mean to complain. You know I’d do this for you for free. I’ll never forget what you did for me when I was having my baby.”

  “Don’t be silly,” Gaia said. There was a standard compensation for wet nurses in Sylum, and once the Matrarc learned that the Bachsdatters were staying on the island, she arranged for Josephine to be paid fairly.

  One late afternoon, Gaia sat by lamplight in the old rocker, holding Josephine’s daughter Junie while on the opposite side of the fireplace, Josephine nursed Maya. Outside, it had been overcast for eight days, ever since the storm, as if the sky were too stubborn to finish raining or fully clear. Wind rattled in the chimney and stirred the ashes, even with the flue closed.

  “It’s like having twins, I guess,” Josephine said for possibly the hundredth time. “Bring me a cup of tea, won’t you?” she added, lifting her voice enough so they all knew the request was aimed at Leon.

  Near the glass of the window, where the darkness of the late afternoon cast a blue coolness over his skin, Leon aimed his gaze toward the deck and the valley beyond. At Josephine’s words, he obligingly turned and walked into the kitchen. His boots made a hollow sound on the wooden floor.

  “This beats having Bill around, let me tell you,” Josephine said. She’d said that before, too.

  “I’m sure,” Gaia murmured.

  “I just wish Xave could see me now. Do you think he’ll ever come visit?”

  “No.”

  Gaia glanced across the room, over the half-wall partition that divided the living room from the kitchen, to where Leon was dipping water from the bucket by the sink. He’d rolled his sleeves up his forearms, and the brown cotton delineated his muscles as he moved. She looked away. She lived in dread that he would realize how often she liked to study him, because the truth was, to her dismay, she had discovered just how easy it was to watch him perform even the most mundane task. There was a kind of efficient grace to everything he did, something in his smallest manipulation of a diaper pin or ladle that fascinated her. This is beyond stupid, she told herself.

  As it happened, he performed a lot of mundane tasks.

  Josephine seemed to take perverse pleasure in asking him to do the least thing for her, from handing her a napkin or bringing her a shawl, to adjusting a candle on the mantel so it wouldn’t be in her eye. Leon never failed to assist her politely, as if he completely accepted that Josephine had every right to command him.

  Gaia, on the other hand, couldn’t bear to ask him to do the simplest thing for her. She felt indebted to him for having Maya back in her life and she was relieved that he was never again openly hostile, but never could she find a sign from him, like the day when he’d lifted her in and out of the canoe, that he cared for her at all. At worst, she had the feeling she was disappointing him. At best, he ignored her as much as possible, given that they were living in the same cabin.

  It was driving her mad.

  That madness, in turn, made her lonely for the comfort of Will’s barn, and thoughts of Will made her edgy about Peter, too. It was new territory for her, all of it, and she didn’t like being perpetually unsettled.

  Leon brought Josephine the requested cup of tea and set it on a stool near her hand. His finger with the missing knuckle passed over the rim.

  “Thank you,” Josephine said, then yawned, covering her mouth. “You didn’t bring Mlass Gaia any.”

  He looked gravely at Gaia. “Tea for you, Gaia?”

  “Of course she wants some,” Josephine said, laughing. “I don’t understand how you can call her ‘Gaia’ and still be so formal.” She yawned again, luxuriously. “I’m sorry. I’m so sleepy. It’s this darkness. Start a fire for us, please, Vlatir.”

  Gaia felt him still looking at her. “I don’t need any tea,” she said softly. “Thank you.”

  “If you’ll excuse me, then,” Leon said, gesturing toward the hearth.

  Gaia shifted her legs to be out of his way while he laid the tinder and the wood. He opened the flue, struck a match, and leaned forward. The flare of light outlined his profile as he held the match to a bit of bark, waiting until a tendril of smoke wisped toward the chimney and the first crackle sounded. He’d had someone cut his hair, and her eye was drawn to the bare spot of soft skin behind his ear. She half missed his wilder locks, but at least he’d kept some a little longer in front.

  He turned, lifting his gaze to hers. Caught staring, she tried to look away, and couldn’t. A sizzle came from the new fire.

  “Excuse me,” he said quietly, and gestured to her socks.

  It took her far too long to realize she was blocking his way again.

  “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, tucking her feet farther back so that he could rise.

  He reached to the mantel. “What is this?”

  She glanced up. “My grandmother’s sketchbook,” Gaia said. The Matrarc had sent the package over to her the day before, and she’d put it with the notebook from Bachsdatter, but she hadn’t had a chance to examine either of them.

  “She was the former Matrarc, right? Mind if I take a look?” he asked.

  “Not at all. I want to, too.”

  Josephine’s eyes were closing with the soporific effect of the warm fire, and she surrendered Maya out of her lax fingers. With her black curls and a delicate pink in the dusky hue of her cheeks, Josephine looked very young, Gaia thought, especially falling asleep. She wondered if Leon ever noticed how pretty Josephine was.

  He was busy settling the sleeping babies together like two cocoons in the bassinet. She moved quietly with him toward the other end of the room, where a table and hutch of dishes made up the eating area.

  “How long do you suppose they’ll all sleep?” Leon asked.

  “Five minutes?”

  He smiled slightly. If she didn’t count unconscious people, Gaia was alone with Leon. She wished it didn’t make her feel wary, but as she came nearer to the table, the room felt a little smaller, as if the panes of cloudy, late light that faced over the deck had moved inward several centimeters. She pushed back her hair from her face and stretched her arms overhead to loosen her stiff shoulders.

  Several maps lay open across the table. “What’s all this?” she asked.

  He spread his hands on the wooden surface, leaning over it, and glanced up. “I borrowed them from Dominic the other day when he called me in to see him.” He gave his head a little jerk to get his bangs out of his eyes. “I’m in the pool, by the way. For what
that’s worth.”

  “Congratulations?” she said, feeling awkward.

  He met her gaze only briefly before looking away. “Thanks.”

  She turned back toward Josephine. “Maybe I should—”

  “No. Stay,” he said, and pushed one of the maps toward her. “This map’s the most current, even though it’s several years old. I’m trying to get a sense for how big the forest is, and why nobody can leave. Malachai said it wasn’t worth trying.”

  “He’s your friend?” Gaia asked, interested.

  “Yes.”

  “He killed his wife, I heard.”

  “Yes. Strangled her. She’d abused him for years, and then he found her hurting their nine-year-old son. He couldn’t let that start.”

  Gaia had never thought of a wife abusing her husband, and it was a stretch to think of big Malachai as a victim. “Is he sorry for what he did?”

  “For killing his wife? Yes. For saving himself and his sons? No. I can’t say I blame him.” He drew one of the older maps toward him. “He’s in for life.” He spoke with finality, and Gaia sensed the subject was closed.

  She swiveled the map in her direction. It was a well-worn paper, tattered around the edges from much handling. Faded lines extended out from the center of the village, like the spokes of a wheel, and an outer ring designated the perimeter of the forest, roughly oval, except where it bumped up against the marsh. Little X’s and Y’s and numbers had been carefully marked in clusters around different points, a palimpsest of records.

  She hitched up her sock and took a chair, sitting on one of her ankles, while Leon occupied a chair kitty-corner to hers. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to a dotted line.

  “That’s the border the outriders travel, more or less.” He tapped a point to the west. “This is where they picked me up, Dominic said. Here’s where they picked up the nomads that came in the day of the thirty-two games.” He glanced up at her. “You heard, right, that your brother Jack traveled with them?”

 
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