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       Prized, p.23

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Josephine smiled from the other bed in the room they shared. She was already nursing Junie, and Maya, miraculously, still slept, her cheeks rosy and serene as she lay in the little bassinet. Beyond her, through the window, it was as gray and overcast as ever, but inside it felt sunny to Gaia.

  “I have a good feeling about today,” Josephine said.

  Gaia curved her cheek into her pillow again, smiling. “I agree.”

  “You’ll never guess who dropped by while you were gone last night. Mlass Taja,” Josephine said. “I hadn’t talked to her in ages, not since before the trial for Xave, but she was very nice. She says there’s rumors about you.”

  “Not bad ones, I hope.”

  “Are you trying to help the men get to vote?” Josephine asked.

  “I think they should vote,” Gaia said, startled. “That doesn’t mean I’ve done anything about it. Who’s saying that?”

  “Mlass Taja wanted to know if you’d said anything. I told her no.” Josephine fluffed her dark hair. “I’m sure it’s nothing but her normal paranoia. She’s ultra protective of her mother. Want to know a secret?” She smiled mischievously.

  “What?”

  “Vlatir washes out his shirt each night in the tub on the porch. I’ve seen him. I think he hangs it in his room to dry overnight. Isn’t that sweet?”

  That had to be what he’d been doing the night of the lightning bugs when she’d heard water outside. Gaia guessed that he valued clean things more than ever since his time in prison. She’d felt the same way. “He should hang it near the fire to dry faster,” she said, “and he needs more clothes.”

  Josephine laughed. “That’s just what I was thinking. Should we make him another shirt?”

  Considering all her father had taught her about sewing, making a shirt was well within Gaia’s sartorial abilities, but there was no way she would do anything so personal for Leon. Just the thought of handling fabric that would cover his skin made her feel strange.

  “Count me out,” Gaia said.

  “Why not? What’s with you two, anyway?” Josephine asked. “I mean, he’s so incredibly handsome and smart. And intense. Those eyes.” Josephine exaggerated a brooding squint.

  “All right. I get it,” Gaia said, sitting up and pushing her pillow away.

  “No, really, Mlass Gaia,” her friend insisted. “Why don’t you try being nicer to him?”

  “Me be nicer? He’s the one who’s so distant,” Gaia said. “He may be courteous on the surface because he can’t help it, but deep down, he doesn’t trust me. He’s told me so. I thought we were doing a little better, but now he hardly even speaks to me anymore.”

  She’d never guessed that strained, ongoing awkwardness could be its own art form of torture, but it felt like it. The winner’s cabin had probably never resulted in less interaction for the winner.

  “What are you talking about? You’re the one who hardly talks to him,” Josephine said. “He’s always baking stuff for you, and putting flowers on the table for you, and washing diapers.”

  “He’s doing that for both of us, and for the babies,” Gaia explained.

  Josephine let out another laugh. “Okay, if you say so. But then why is he all itchy and moody whenever you’re gone? Why is he watching you all the time? Again, with the eyes.”

  “Please don’t. It isn’t funny.”

  “I’m just saying. He’s a lot cuter than both of the Chardos combined, and that’s saying something. Peter alone about kills me.”

  Gaia felt her cheeks burning. “You’re being ridiculous.”

  Josephine smiled brightly. She poked a finger at Gaia. “You should see your face. Mlass Taja told me the Chardos have been asking about you, too.”

  “Leon didn’t happen to be in on this conversation, did he?”

  Josephine tilted her face to consider. “I don’t recall. He was coming and going, like he does.” She sighed. “I’m going to miss living up here.”

  Gaia reached for her skirt and her blouse. The pointless eternity in the winner’s cabin couldn’t end soon enough to suit her.

  CHAPTER 20

  innocence

  LATER THAT MORNING, the Matrarc sent up for Gaia to attend another childbirth, so she headed down to the mother’s cabin on the commons, and arrived just as Mlady Beebe’s labor seemed to stall. She rolled up her white sleeves, washed her hands, and planned to stay through the rest of the day. Most of helping Mlady Beebe involved keeping her comfortable and calm, and trying a slow walk around the backyard. It was Mlady Beebe’s eighth child, and she was weary but not anxious. “My labors are always slow like this,” she said. “I’m sorry the Matrarc even called you so soon.”

  “It’s really fine,” Gaia said. “I’m glad to help.”

  In a lull, when Mlady Beebe’s husband Roger stepped out of the room and they were alone, she set a hand on Gaia’s arm. “I have a friend who’s pregnant again for the fifth time,” Mlady Beebe said, lowering her voice. “Her last child is only a couple months old, and she says she can’t handle another baby so soon. She wants to know if you could help her with a miscarriage.”

  Gaia looked down at her hands and shook her head. “Tell her no. If she asks me directly, I’ll report her to the Matrarc.”

  “Are you sure?” Mlady Beebe asked.

  It was there inside her, a mutiny of frustration, but Gaia strangled it off. “I’m only able to help you now because I promised the Matrarc not to induce miscarriages, in any situation.”

  Mlady Beebe smiled tiredly. “I didn’t know it was true. All right. Forget I asked.”

  Gaia didn’t know if she’d been tested or if Mlady Beebe truly had a friend in trouble. It disturbed her to think of it at all, especially since now she was worried about Mlady Beebe’s pregnant friend.

  “I’m sorry,” Mlady Beebe said. “You aren’t mad at me?”

  “Of course not,” Gaia said, and turned to check the supplies in her satchel again. She would try to forget. That was all she could do.

  Mlady Beebe’s children came frequently to give her hugs, and neighbors dropped by to check on the mother’s progress. By late afternoon, several uncles came to take the kids to their house for dinner. Nightfall came early with the overcast sky, and Mlady Beebe’s labor started in again, gradually progressing until the baby was finally born: a healthy boy. Gaia, exhausted from assisting births two days in a row, sighed in relief as she passed the tiny boy to his mother, who welcomed him with trembling, grateful fingers. Roger tenderly kissed Mlady Beebe on the forehead.

  “What should we name him?” Mlady Beebe asked.

  The man’s hand looked enormous as he gently caressed the infant’s little head. “I want him to be free some day,” Roger said. “I want to name him ‘Liberty.’”

  “For a boy?” Mlady Beebe said.

  “We’ll call him ‘Bert,’ if you want.”

  Mlady Beebe shook her head. “I don’t know, Roger.”

  Roger smiled down at his son and glanced over to Gaia. “Will it happen, Mlass Gaia?” he asked. “Will men ever vote here?”

  “Why do you ask me?”

  Mlady Beebe and Roger exchanged a glance. “We were hoping,” Roger began. “Well, some of us men have been hoping you’d take the issue to the Matrarc for us, seeing as how you’ve stood up to her before.”

  “Why don’t you?” Gaia asked Mlady Beebe.

  “I just don’t think it’s right,” she said. “There’s already more trouble with the men lately. I just want things to go back to how they were. We’ve got kids to think of. You shouldn’t have mentioned it, Roger. I asked you not to.”

  Gaia looked at Roger, who averted his gaze to his newborn son and said no more.

  Mlady Beebe gave a heavy sigh and then reached a hand for Gaia. “You’ve been so good to us,” she said. “I’m sorry politics had to come up. We’re so grateful.”

  Gaia started cleaning up and putting her supplies back in her satchel. She looked again at Roger, who hadn’t moved, and
that’s when Gaia had an odd feeling, like she was having a glimpse into a marriage with hidden layers.

  There was a knock on the front door, and Roger left to answer it.

  “Please, Mlass Gaia,” Mlady Beebe said. “Don’t mind what he says. I don’t want him in trouble if something gets started.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean it for your own sake, too,” Mlady Beebe said. “We don’t need a rebellion here. Not now. The backlash would be bad for us all.”

  “You don’t think the Matrarc would permit the men to vote?”

  Mlady Beebe’s eyes were tired and worried. “No. It would mean too much upheaval. It’s better to keep things as they are, especially as we go into the decline.”

  Gaia could hardly contain her surprise. “There’s a plan for the decline?”

  “Not really a plan. But it’s obviously coming, isn’t it?” As Roger returned, Mlady Beebe put her hand on Gaia’s. “Don’t bring us into any trouble. Please.”

  Gaia gave her hand an uncertain squeeze.

  “Chardo’s here to escort you back up to the winner’s cabin,” Roger said. “He’s out with the horses.”

  “Which brother?” Gaia asked, and to her surprise, she discovered she didn’t know which one she hoped for more.

  “The younger one.” he said.

  Peter, she realized, would do very nicely. It felt like forever since their canoe ride in the marsh. She tried to hide a smile.

  Mlady Beebe laughed. “It’s about time. I’d like to see something good happen to the Chardos. You’re just what they need.”

  Gaia blushed, picking up her satchel. “You’re all set, then?”

  “We’re good. Go on. And thank you, for everything,” Mlady Beebe said. “Can you let yourself out?”

  “Of course.”

  Mlady Beebe reached out a hand for her husband, who sat obediently beside her and looked up once more to thank Gaia.

  As she stepped into the other room and put on her cloak, Gaia couldn’t help wondering if Mlady Beebe had kept Roger beside her deliberately so that he couldn’t speak to Gaia alone. She opened the heavy door and stepped out, closing it behind her. With a hand on the latch, she peered into the darkness and hitched her sachel up on her shoulder. She heard a horse snuffle a murky breath somewhere to her left.

  “Peter?”

  “I’m here.”

  His quiet voice was part of the cool evening darkness, silky and inviting. As her eyes adjusted, she saw him waiting at the edge of the yard. In the distance, beyond the big, shadowy trees that ringed the commons, the lodge’s windows glowed faintly, indicating others were awake there still.

  “How late is it?” she asked, walking carefully forward, trying not to trip in the dark grass.

  “After ten. Not too late,” he said.

  She headed toward his voice. “Did you bring Spider?”

  She came up against Peter in the darkness. She let out a soft “Oh!” expecting him to step back, but instead she felt his hands close around her arms to steady her, and he didn’t let go.

  “I’ve wanted to see you so badly,” he said.

  Her heartbeat leapt. “Peter,” she began, glancing around. “It’s not safe here.”

  “It’s dark. No one will see.”

  He backed up a step, drawing her along with him, and then another. She could just make out the shape of his face and the line of his jaw. She tentatively touched her fingertips to the front of his shirt. Heat lay beneath the fabric.

  “Are you okay?” he asked. “Is he treating you all right?”

  “Of course,” she said, smiling.

  “You sound tired.”

  “I just delivered a baby.”

  “How’s your sister?” he asked.

  “She’s good. She’s gaining weight, and she actually slept six hours straight last night.”

  “That’s wonderful. You must be happy.”

  “I am. You can’t imagine.” She felt his hands slide around her back, and then he was pulling her gently nearer.

  “What do you do up there all day?” he asked. He was so near his voice was hardly more than a whisper.

  A tingle started in her gut and spread outward. “I help with the babies,” she said. “There are always diapers to wash. And I cook some.”

  “That’s all? You don’t play cards or anything?”

  “No, why?”

  Her satchel slipped down her shoulder and he caught it for her, lifting it away to hook it over the saddle.

  “You don’t walk in the meadow?” he asked. His arms slid around her again.

  She laughed. “We’re far too busy for that,” she said. Though one night we watched lightning bugs.

  “I’m trying to picture it,” he said. “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve done?”

  Inside her cloak, one of his hands moved lightly up her back, and it was getting hard for her to think.

  “The most interesting thing?” she said. “We found a letter to my parents in my grandmother’s sketchbook.”

  “You and Mx. Josephine?”

  “Me and Leon.”

  “You and him.” He sounded as if she was finally telling him what he wanted to know. “What did it say?”

  “It was in a code. She told my parents to leave Sylum if they ever came here.” She peered up at him, wishing she could see him more clearly. “It made me want to ask you about that time you left and beat the gateway sickness. Did you have any withdrawal symptoms, like shakes or hallucinations or anything?”

  His hands stilled where they were. “I already told you,” he said. “I was starting to feel strange, like headachy and nauseous. I wouldn’t say they were hallucinations, but I lit up and that took care of it.”

  “You smoked rice flower?”

  “Yes. Why? Do you think that mattered?”

  Gaia thought of Norris smoking, too.

  “I don’t believe it,” she said. She impulsively tugged on his shirt. “Peter, that’s the solution. The rice flower was why you were able to avoid the gateway sickness.” Her mind was flying. “Why didn’t I see it? Norris smoked, too, when he went to rescue my grandmother. Since he went just as far as she did, he should have died, too, but he lived to bring her back because he was smoking the rice flower. Do you hear what I’m saying?”

  “We could leave,” he said quietly.

  “I know!” she said. She’d never been so excited. She couldn’t wait to tell Leon. And the Matrarc. “This changes everything,” she said. “The people of Sylum don’t have to stay here and die off. I want you with me when I tell the Matrarc. She’ll be thrilled.”

  “You want to go now?”

  “Sure. Why not?”

  He laughed, low in his throat. “You sound so happy.”

  “Of course I am,” she said, grinning. “This is huge!”

  “You’re so pretty when you’re happy,” he said, and his arms tightened around her.

  His absurdity amused her beyond anything. “I can’t be pretty in the dark,” she said, laughing.

  “It isn’t dark for me.”

  Gaia’s breath caught. Her joy was transformed by sweet pleasure, and then he drew her nearer until her shirt met his. Tentatively, she moved her arms around him, while something anxious inside her wondered why he felt so good to her. She felt a feather-light touch along her right cheek, and the softest kiss followed. She couldn’t inhale anymore. Her heart forgot how to work.

  When she tipped her face up, his mouth was already there, barely any distance away. All she had to do would be to tilt up a little farther, and her lips would meet his. She didn’t know how she could tell that he was still smiling, but she could, and then his lips touched briefly against hers. It was just enough so that she knew precisely where he was. He tasted like the night air, pure and clear. And then he just tasted of happiness. She closed her eyes, leaning completely into him, and let herself get lost.

  She became dimly aware that a banging had started on a door. “Mom!”
yelled a child’s bright voice. “Mom! Open up! Show us the baby! Is it a girl?”

  A moment later, the area was filled with the rush of footsteps as Mlady Beebe’s children returned home, and when the door was thrown open, light illuminated every corner of the yard.

  Gaia broke away from Peter, but it was already too late. Other people were in the yard, too, and they were turning in curiosity.

  “Come on in, children. Hurry now,” Roger said. The little ones scampered in.

  “Can you open the door any more there, Roger?” came a man’s deep voice. “We need the light. You all right there, Mlass?”

  “I’m fine,” she said quickly.

  “Mlass Gaia?” came Mlady Maudie’s voice. “Is that you?”

  “You’d best stand aside, there,” came the man’s voice again, warningly. He started toward them, his striped shirt catching the light. “Chardo Peter?”

  “Hello, Doerring,” Peter said calmly. “Mlady Maudie.”

  Mlady Maudie took a step into the light. “You should know better, Chardo,” she said. “How long have you been out here? Roger, what do you think?”

  “Not long. He came maybe fifteen minutes ago,” Roger said.

  “Long enough,” Mlady Maudie said. “Doerring, take him.”

  The men began to circle around Peter.

  “Wait a minute,” Gaia objected. “He didn’t do anything. There’s nothing wrong with me.”

  “That was an uncondoned embrace,” Mlady Maudie said. “We all saw it, clear as day. I just hope the children didn’t.”

  “Mlass Gaia, it’s all right,” Peter said.

  She stepped before him into the light cast from the doorway. “No. I’m telling you,” she insisted. “Look at me. I’m perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong.”

  “Please, Mlass. It’s the law. Attempted rape is a matter for the tribunal,” said one of the older men.

  “Attempted rape? Are you serious?” she said. “It was just a kiss. Nothing more.”

  “He actually kissed you?” Mlady Maudie asked.

  “Mlass Gaia, no,” Peter said and groaned.

  “That’s it,” Doerring said. “You going to come easy, Chardo?” The big man crowded nearer.

 
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