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       Prized, p.22

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “They’re like music,” she said.

  “I know. Or flying.”

  She zoomed Maya smoothly through the air in three big, slow swooshes, careful to support her little head. “Come out with us,” Gaia said.

  “I’m good here,” he said.

  “Why not?” she asked.

  “You know why.”

  She looked over. “I don’t,” she said. “Is it that you like me and don’t want to, or that you don’t like me?”

  “None of the above.”

  The light from behind him faintly outlined his shirt, revealing only that he wasn’t moving. She felt something strange and magnetic between them, something that defied labeling, yet it was tinged with sadness, too, or longing.

  “You’re deliberately being enigmatic,” she said.

  He laughed. “Not at all.”

  “Then come out with us.”

  “That sounds suspiciously like a girl command,” he said lightly. “You’re learning from Mx. Josephine.”

  “No, I just want—” She broke herself off.

  “Yes?”

  You near, she thought. She couldn’t say it. A twisting feeling happened inside her, making her hug Maya tight again.

  “You enjoy the bugs, then,” he said. “I’m heading in.”

  He straightened away from the post and let himself in the screen door, closing it softly. Gaia turned slowly in a complete circle to see all the lightning bugs glowing around her. They were still beautiful, still incredible, but without him to share them with, they’d lost their transcendent enchantment. She held Maya near to her neck and scanned the dark sky, not finding Orion or any stars through the cloud cover, while inside she just felt confused. Just plain uncertain and anxious and hungry. It was an awful combination. Shivering, she stepped carefully toward the cabin again.

  She slipped in the screen door, blinking toward the lamplight in the living room, and as she stepped forward, he came into sight on the far side of the dining table. He was inspecting her grandmother’s code, fiddling with the spoon.

  “There’s something here,” he said. “With the symbols. But they don’t line up.”

  His manner was direct and openly curious. She hesitated, considering. Perhaps, as long as they restricted their exchanges to a practical level, they could last all the way through a normal conversation. At least there could be a chance of a friendship with him this way.

  “I know,” she said, coming down the stairs with Maya over her shoulder. She would try, at least. “Look, here.” She pointed. “Right next to the spoon, it looks like half a letter’s missing, and then the next one below it, too. I think she sliced letters apart, and then squished the halves together.”

  “Down the page?” he asked.

  She nodded. “It must be, because going across doesn’t work at all. I was going to redraw them.”

  “Why don’t you try? I’ll hold Maya.”

  She passed over the baby, then opened the ink and dipped the quill. Carefully, she copied each character from the first column directly beside the next, only running left-to-right across the fresh sheet instead of from the top down.

  She straightened slightly to see the message. She puzzled over the long string of letters until she could separate them into distinct words:

  leave the miasma addicts and go

  “Is miasma even a word?” Gaia said.

  “It’s an atmosphere, a fog,” Leon said.

  Gaia stared at him, her mind scrambling, and saw he was thinking fast, too.

  “It’s not the water of the marsh that’s toxic,” she said. “It’s the fog. The evaporation. It’s in the air around us all the time.”

  He nodded. “I’m not ruling out that the water might be toxic, too, but the miasma makes some sense. An odorless gas local to the marsh could certainly be addicting.”

  “Especially if it’s based in the lily-poppies,” she added. She was already reaching for the quill again. “Like they’re essentially cooking in the sunlight. We’re always breathing. That means we’re constantly getting a low-grade fix. Could we all be addicted to the miasma without even knowing?”

  “Think about us when we first came,” he said. “We had to adapt to the air, but once we did, we didn’t have any symptoms anymore. Everyone else has been used to the air here since they were born.”

  “And think of Maya,” she said. “She had a terrible time out on the island. She was a baby on drugs.”

  “The miasma could be even stronger out there,” he said.

  “I think my grandmother was studying everything she could about the marsh because she was looking for a cure for the miasma addiction.”

  “That’s likely. But the miasma addiction doesn’t explain the shortage of girls,” he argued. “All those X’s and Y’s on the map are probably births of girls and boys, by location. She was trying to find a pattern there, too.”

  “They could be two unrelated things,” Gaia said. “Suppose the miasma addiction keeps people here. Something else could turn the girls into boys.” She reached again for the letter to her parents.

  “What did you say?” he asked slowly. “About the girls?”

  “I just mean the girl shortage could have a separate cause.”

  She fingered the pen to copy out more of the letters, but Leon reached for the bottle of ink and moved it out of her reach.

  “What else do you know?” he asked. “What do you know about the girls?”

  Gaia glanced up. He regarded her intently.

  Too late, she realized what she’d said. “I have a theory about the girls,” she admitted.

  “Let’s have it.”

  “I think girls are being turned into boys,” she said. “Maybe there’s some hormone left over in the marsh from when it had a fish farm, something that’s getting more concentrated the more the water evaporates, or something that seeped into the soil of the marsh and keeps bleeding into the water. Is that possible?”

  “There was a fish farm here?”

  She nodded. “For years.”

  Leon regarded her pensively. “Some fish farms used hormones to raise only male fish. They were more uniform in size that way, which made processing them easier. We thought about it for hens back in the Enclave, in reverse, but it wasn’t practical.” He tilted the ink bottle idly, not quite spilling it. “Could the hormone mimic originally intended for fish now affect humans? It’s a stretch. I suppose, hypothetically, the expools could be XX males who were exposed. It would have to be early, while they’re in utero,” he said. “They would be born as boys, but their chromosomes would be female. That would make them infertile.”

  “They’d still look like men, though, right?” she asked. “But with female parts inside?”

  He studied her before he answered. “They could. This is an unsubstantiated theory, I’m assuming. Right?”

  She couldn’t reveal what she knew from doing the autopsy with Will. “Whatever I know is in confidence.”

  His chair creaked as he leaned back, still holding Maya, who had dropped off to sleep in his arms. “A secret,” he said. “You have a secret that could make a difference, and you won’t tell me. You’ll tell the Matrarc about Peony, but you won’t tell me some random thing about the expools.”

  She shifted uncomfortably against the table. “I can’t. And it doesn’t make a difference. It’s a dead end. There’s no way to reverse the hormone mimic, is there?”

  “No. You can’t cure a man of that kind of sterility, and if it’s in the water, it’s in everything. You can’t purify it out of the environment to prevent future XX males. What if I promise to keep it a secret, too?”

  She hesitated, then shook her head, steadfast. “I still can’t. I made a promise.”

  “A secret and now a promise,” he echoed. “You do realize a promise is a level of loyalty. Are there any secrets of mine that you keep from anyone else?”

  “Of course.”

  “Such as?”

  She hesitated, reluctant
to exhume the twisted, haunting loss of his sister.

  He waited.

  “I’d never tell about Fiona,” she said quietly.

  For a long moment he stared at her, expressionless, and then he shrugged. “People here can’t speculate about rumors they’ve never heard, so they’d never ask you. Maybe there is one good thing about this place,” he said dryly. “Tell me just this: Is it Peter’s secret you’re keeping?”

  She had one of Peter’s secrets, too. “Don’t ask me, Leon,” she pleaded. “It doesn’t make a difference. We’ve identified the miasma addiction and that’s all that really matters. I’ll just decode the rest of these pages, and we’ll go from there to find a cure, all right?”

  He stood slowly. His lips closed in a taut line. “You know, I told myself I wouldn’t do this, but here I am again, anyway. Trusting you.”

  “You can trust me.”

  “No,” he said quietly. “I can’t. Not when you pick through my brain and won’t let me into yours. Take her, please.” He passed the sleeping baby carefully into Gaia’s arms.

  “What about the lightning bugs?” Gaia reminded him.

  His gaze flicked to hers and then away. “They were too pretty. They conspired against me. I’ll know better next time.”

  He went to his bedroom and closed the door.

  Gaia sank back in her chair, miserable and confused. It was easier, by far, when he kept his distance, but he could reach into her faster and more tenderly than anyone she’d ever known. Lightning bugs.

  She groaned.

  She frowned down at her sister, jealous of the baby’s peaceful sleep, but too restless to go to bed herself. A few minutes later, when she heard the sound of water out on the porch, she lifted her head, listening. He had to be washing up.

  She curled her leg up beneath her, keeping Maya in one arm, and reached for the quill. Carefully, she copied over her grandmother’s code, separating the symbols into logical words as she went, and starting a new line for each group of symbols.

  leave the miasma addicts and go

  i have no proof none believe me

  labor wasted on fools if

  you read this my bonnie

  obtuse not be smoke i

  regret i ever left you or urged

  relocating to a better

  ideal place none exists go back to

  cruel unlake for gaias sake

  else we all die

  Gaia read the message over, and each time her heart sank more. Regret, urgency, and scorn. Were these her grandmother’s legacy to her, after all? Why had she bothered putting this bitter, spiteful message in a code to keep it secret? So none but her parents could read it, she thought.

  She set the pen down and cuddled Maya closely. “But how do we leave?” she whispered. “If Sylum is a death trap, how do we escape?”

  She left the poem and her notes on the table in a tidy pile for Leon to see when he awoke. If he cared to.

  The next day, Gaia headed down to the lodge with Maya in her sling to pick up more of her midwifery herbs and found Norris in the kitchen, peeling potatoes. Sawyer, who had found Peony’s box under the tree, was helping him, but when Norris saw Gaia, he urged her to stay for a visit and sent the boy out. He stopped peeling to inspect Maya, and his stern features softened.

  “She’s cute,” Norris said. “How’s the winner’s cabin? I could come up and chaperone you, if you want. I talked it over with the Matrarc.”

  She set her basket on the counter. “Mx. Josephine’s enough,” she said. “I appreciate the offer, though.” The truth was, she’d come down to the lodge in part to avoid the awkwardness of seeing Leon again that morning. She could feel Norris’s gaze upon her and knew she was starting to blush.

  He made a humming noise. “You watch yourself,” he said. “The idea is, a man’s supposed to give you a chance to get to know him. He’s not supposed to pressure you in any way.”

  “Leon doesn’t. We hardly speak most of the time. Besides, I’m not technically his prize.”

  Norris chucked a potato in a pot with a bang. “He doesn’t seem like the sort to let a technicality get in his way.”

  “You’re worried about me, aren’t you?” she asked, smiling.

  “Course not.”

  Gaia laughed, pleased. “Did you know you look like a pirate, Norris?”

  “Okay. Enough. Get out.”

  She laughed again, taking a stool and picking up a potato. Norris passed her a paring knife. Maya slept peacefully in the sling, her warmth snug against Gaia’s side while Gaia peeled. “Mx. Josephine told me my grandmother was crazy. Can you tell me anything about her?”

  “Mlady Danni? Sure. She was full of new ideas when she came,” Norris said. “Like the water towers, and it was her plan to irrigate farther up to where the cornfield is now, too. People had been worrying about the girl shortage privately, but your grandmother took it on directly. She made having children a top priority, a civic duty. Very forthright she was, and people listened to her. I think they were relieved. That’s why the cuzines chose her for our leader.”

  “She wrote my parents a letter warning them to leave if they ever came here,” Gaia said.

  “That fits,” Norris said. “Ironically, people become more complacent with all the improvements she started, but your grandmother got more and more worried.” He paused in his peeling to point his knife for emphasis. “She predicted the girl shortage was going to get much worse, and fast. It drove her frantic that people weren’t listening to her. She wanted us all to leave Sylum, but of course, we can’t. By the end, she was obsessed with trying to go herself. That’s what killed her.”

  “Mx. Josephine told me you found her,” Gaia said. “But I don’t know any of the details.”

  “Your grandmother was headed south, toward Wharfton. She made it past the oasis down that way. It was an ugly death, Mlass. She had seizures and shakes.” Norris propped the point of his knife on the table. “If you really want to know, she was trying to claw her own eyes out when I found her. I’ll never forget it.”

  “What did you do?” Gaia asked, appalled.

  “What could I do? I packed her up on my horse and raced back with her as fast as I could, but she was too far gone. By the time I pulled into the commons, she was dead.”

  Gaia couldn’t get over the idea of her grandmother clawing out her eyes, as if she had been seeing things. Hallucinating.

  “There’s something else,” Norris said. “I never told this to anybody. Your grandmother was opposed to smoking anything. She liked to say that smoking made us all shiftless and boring, actually, but when I found her, she had a pipe full of the lily-poppy. Mlass Gaia, nobody smokes the lily-poppy. It isn’t mellow like the rice flower. I think she was experimenting on herself and it went wrong.”

  She tried to remember something Peter had said about the time he had left. “Did you smoke anything yourself?” she asked. “On that trip?”

  He nodded. “I smoked a little rice flower. I did regularly back then.”

  “I’ve never seen you,” she said. “Did you quit?”

  “I quit the day I lost my leg.” He rubbed at his knee. Una came around and jumped in his lap, and he let go of his knife to pet her with his broad hands.

  “You never told me about that,” she said.

  “You never asked,” Norris replied. “I wanted to leave Sylum, too. I figured if your grandmother could try it, so could a big strong expool like me. But no. My horse rolled into a ravine and broke its neck. I lay trapped under him for half a day before Chardo Sid found me and brought me back. The doc sawed off half way down my shin, cauterized the end, and there you have it.”

  She felt her eyes going wide as she imagined the mechanics of sawing through a man’s bone. “What did you have for the pain?” she asked.

  “I had me a nice-sized pouch of black rice flower, so I packed up my pipe and I smoked all of it while I was under that horse,” he said. “Or do you mean for the surgery? I passed out from
the shock. Didn’t think I’d ever wake up.” Una made a loud purring noise and closed her eyes as he rubbed between her ears. “I promised to be grateful for what I have and give up smoking, if only I survived somehow. I won’t say I don’t miss it from time to time. The Matrarc, she helped me. She gave me the job here in the lodge and told me I couldn’t predict what I’d been kept alive for. I’ve thought about that lately, with you here.”

  Gaia glanced at Maya, lingering on the beautiful little face. “I’m afraid I’ll let you down, Norris.”

  Keeping his hold on Una, he reached up, took down a small jar of honey from a shelf, and tucked it in her basket.

  “What’s that for?” she asked.

  “I know you like it in your tea,” he said. “You can share with Mx. Josephine and Vlatir, but only if you want to.”

  Gaia picked up her basket and pointed to the honey. “That, right there, is why you were kept alive,” she said.

  He laughed, jogging his big eyebrows. “And you won’t let me down, Mlass Gaia. Never worry about that.”

  Gaia considered telling Leon about Norris’s ideas, but she never had the chance. He developed an uncanny ability to appear only when Josephine was also already present and evinced no interest in resuming their conversation.

  In time, Maya began to grow. First her fingers filled out from bony stubs to slender, curving, flexing fingers. She seemed to change by the hour as her cheeks filled out and her head wasn’t as wobbly. Junie was sleeping through the night, and Maya’s length between night feedings began to stretch from four hours to five. The first night Gaia was able to sleep six hours in a row with no babies waking her, she rose astonished at how well-rested she felt. The timing was especially sweet since she’d been at a childbirth earlier in the night and had badly need the rest.

 
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