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       Prized, p.24

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  It was going too fast.

  “Get away from him,” Gaia said, backing near to Peter again to shield him from the other men. “For the last time, he didn’t do anything.”

  To her amazement, Peter stepped around her into the light and didn’t resist at all as two of the men grabbed his arms.

  “Roger, stop them!” Gaia called. “Mlady Maudie!”

  “I’m sorry, Mlass,” Roger said. “He went too far. I’ve got a daughter of my own.”

  “Just don’t say anything more,” Peter said to Gaia.

  One of the men hit him across the face. “Don’t mess with her. You’ve done enough.”

  “Peter!” she called. “Are you all right? Leave him alone!” She grabbed at Doerring’s arm.

  “What on earth is going on here?” came a new voice from the road.

  “Norris!” Gaia called, spinning toward the voice. “They’re arresting Chardo Peter for attempted rape. Make them let him go!”

  “The girl’s completely out of control,” Mlady Maudie said.

  “I’m not the problem!” Gaia protested.

  Norris came in the yard and crossed quickly to Gaia. “Take it easy there, Mlass,” he said softly.

  “Chardo kissed her and who knows what else,” Mlady Maudie said, stepping nearer.

  “Get away from me!” Gaia said. “You never liked me!”

  “See what I mean?” Mlady Maudie said. “You try to handle her.”

  Norris laughed. “Take the boy, now. I’ve got Mlass Gaia. She’s not going to cause any fuss, not this late in the evening when the kids are all trying to settle down.”

  Something in his tone made her listen. A warning. She looked back at Peter. Already a drip of blood was coming from his mouth. His hair was messed over his eyes, and his lips moved silently in the light from the doorway: Please.

  “What are you going to do with him?” Gaia asked.

  “We’ll hold him down at the prison until the tribunal,” Doerring said.

  “Tribunal!” she said. This can’t be happening. “Can’t you all just forget about this?” she pleaded. “Believe me. Nothing happened.” She turned toward Mlady Maudie. “Truly. Look at me, I’m fine.”

  Mlady Maudie let out a brief laugh. “Fine you are not.”

  “Mlass Gaia,” Peter said, his voice low and deliberate. “You must stop.” His quietness alarmed her most of all. In a moment of charged silence, she stared around her, grasping finally that these people would not yield to reason.

  “I’ll find the Matrarc now,” she said to Peter. “I’ll make her let you go.” She turned toward the horses.

  “Norris, go with her,” Mlady Maudie said. “Talk sense to her.”

  Frustrated beyond belief, Gaia heaved herself up, threw her satchel over her shoulder, and pulled at the reins. She took a last look at Peter being hustled away by the men, and with a sense of near panic, she took off with Norris.

  “Unbelievably moronic,” Norris said as they rode out of earshot. “Kissing, right where you could be seen. You had the whole ride back up to the bluff. Couldn’t you wait five minutes?”

  She caught a glimpse of his irate expression as they passed the lodge. “I didn’t know he was going to kiss me. It’s not like I planned anything.”

  “He could have, if he had a brain in his head.”

  “I told them I was fine,” she said, still infuriated. “This is all a stupid fuss for nothing.”

  “If you’ll calm down for a minute, I’ll try to explain.”

  “I know already,” she said. “Touching isn’t condoned. It’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard of.”

  Norris kept riding, aiming up the road that led toward the bluff, and she could tell from his silence that he wasn’t going to answer her until she calmed down.

  She took a deep breath. “All right. I’ll listen,” she said. “But just don’t tell me something ridiculous or I’ll lose it again.”

  “Intimate physical relations are the absolute basis of our entire society here,” Norris said. “You have to remember, there are nine men for every woman. Nine. They’re competing all the time, and the rules are very precise to keep it fair. If one man crosses the line, it’s unfair to everyone else.”

  “I get all that. But Peter didn’t cross a line,” Gaia said.

  “It doesn’t matter if you personally welcomed what he did. Once he can touch you or kiss you or whatever, you’re naturally going to care more for him. He’s playing on your sympathy, on your desire.”

  “Don’t I have a choice about my own desire?” she demanded.

  “He’s using your own body to influence your reason, not the other way around.”

  “But what if I want that?”

  He grunted in the darkness. “I am not getting through to you.”

  “No. You’re not. Because you’re wrong.”

  “Let me put it this way. Are you ready to choose Chardo Peter over any other man, permanently, for the rest of your life?” Norris asked.

  She frowned, thinking of Will and Leon. “Of course not.”

  “So then, you were just playing with him.”

  “Norris! I’m not like that.”

  “You’re either incredibly dense or just plain mean. He took an enormous risk for you. Think, Mlass Gaia. He was unbelievably stupid, but whatever you two just did in the dark meant a lot more to him than it did to you. It mattered.” Norris kicked his horse. “I’m no good at this,” he said.

  It began to come clear. The rule against touching didn’t just raise the stakes legally, it raised them emotionally, too. Peter must deeply care for her, and by accepting his kiss, it must seem to him that she cared that much, too. She’d raised his expectations exponentially.

  “I never should have kissed him,” she said, horrified.

  “Now you’re getting there.” Norris pulled to the right, and Gaia saw they’d arrived at the Chardos’ ranch.

  “What are you doing?” she asked.

  “What do you think? Rotting peg leg’s no good in a stirrup,” he added under his breath.

  “I can’t talk to the Chardos,” Gaia said.

  “Don’t be a coward,” Norris said. “Come on.”

  She watched him head up the driveway, toward the cabin where light gleamed in several windows. “I’ll just keep going up to the Matrarc’s,” Gaia called.

  “It’s a bad idea getting her up when she’s with her family. She won’t do anything tonight, anyway. Wait, and talk to her calmly in the morning.”

  “But Peter will spend the night in prison,” Gaia said.

  “It’ll give him a chance to wise up,” Norris said. “Take my advice on this one.”

  She itched to do something productive, but it was possible Norris was right. She rode up the driveway to where he was already dismounting. The door opened on his knock, and Will stood framed in the doorway with lamp light behind him.

  “What’s going on?” he asked. “Is there a death?”

  “It’s Mlass Gaia. She needs an escort back up to the winner’s cabin,” Norris said.

  “I thought Peter was taking her.”

  “There’s been a problem,” Norris said. “I’ll let her explain. Let me talk to Sid.” He stomped up the step and passed Will.

  “Mlass Gaia? Are you all right?” Will asked.

  She wanted to rip up the night and tear it to shreds. She pulled her horse around, realizing only then that, unlike the last time she rode, her feet met the stirrups comfortably. Peter, so considerately, had adjusted them for her height when he’d saddled her horse.

  “I think I’m going to scream,” she said.

  “Wait,” Will said, already reaching for Spider. “I’m coming.”

  She headed impatiently back down the driveway.

  “What happened?” Will asked as he caught up. “Are you hurt?”

  The clouds had thinned to let through the light of a gibbous moon, and though the horse picked its way smoothly over the road, she could see only outline
s and she was glad. She didn’t want Will to see her face.

  “I kissed your brother. Or he kissed me,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Some people saw us and now he’s been arrested for attempted rape.”

  The horses’ footfalls beat stolidly on the dark dirt road, underscoring Will’s wordless silence.

  “And now you hate me,” she added.

  Will’s voice was careful. “I’m just surprised. Are you sure you’re all right? He didn’t hurt you in any way, did he?”

  “How can you even ask that? Of course he didn’t. And please don’t say you warned me. I feel bad enough as it is.”

  “I’m sure it wasn’t your fault.”

  “It was my fault, as much as his,” she said. “I’ll talk to the Matrarc first thing tomorrow. There has to be a way to explain.”

  “You have to be careful about what you say,” he said. “You don’t want to make it worse.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “If you’re too passionate in your defense of him, they’ll wonder why you’re not impartial.”

  “Of course I’m not impartial,” she said.

  “Listen to me,” Will said, his voice warming. “If witnesses saw you and they can prove he kissed you, then the law is very clear. He’s going to the stocks and then to prison. Can they really prove it? Where did this happen?”

  It was getting worse and worse. “I admitted it myself,” she said, her voice tight. “We were in the yard of Mlady Beebe’s house, and Mlady Maudie and several others saw us. I was trying to persuade them it was just a kiss.”

  He lifted a hand to the bridge of his nose. “That’s it, then,” he said.

  “Will, no. We can explain. They’ll have to listen to us.”

  “Peter won’t be there.”

  “What?” she demanded.

  “He won’t be at the tribunal. You say you had witnesses. You admitted yourself, in front of them, that he kissed you. That’s attempted rape.”

  “But I kissed him, too! And nothing more happened! What about presumed innocence?” she demanded.

  “That’s it exactly,” Will said. “You’re presumed innocent. That makes him the guilty one.”

  She could not believe this. “There was no crime.”

  “Whether you agree with it or not, it’s the law here that a man can’t touch you until you’ve made a choice to marry him.” Will audibly flicked his reins. “That’s just how it is. If he breaks the law, he goes to the stocks and then to jail. Peter knew that.”

  “You’re talking about your own brother like you don’t even care!”

  “Of course I care,” he said sharply. “It’s taking everything I’ve got not to go down there and wring his neck. And then yours.”

  Gaia caught her breath. He wasn’t kidding.

  “You want to know what’s really funny?” Will said. “We drew straws tonight to see who would pick you up from Mlady Beebe’s.”

  She could hardly accept what he was saying, barely imagine that scene between the two brothers. Her mind twisted around the possibilities. This might never have happened if Will had met her at Mlady Beebe’s instead of Peter, but something else might have.

  “I never would have tried anything with you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he added. “And not because I have any fear of the stocks.”

  “No. You might be jealous, but you’d never think of kissing me,” she said, not really caring whether she made sense or not. She was getting angry all over again, as if he were implying that what she and Peter had done was truly unnatural and criminal.

  “Give me credit for some subtlety,” Will said. “I’m saying I would never put you in the position he’s put you in.”

  “You’re too decent, you mean,” she said.

  “Don’t hold it against me.” He kicked Spider into a faster pace.

  She gripped her reins and dug in her heels to catch up with him, riding in stubborn silence while she tried to sort out her emotions. She didn’t like having tension with Will on top of everything else. The path rose through the trees, and eventually reached the more open ridge at the top of the bluff.

  “There’s an obvious thing to do,” she said. “We need to change the law.”

  “I know.”

  “And I guess it’s up to me to do it,” she said.

  “You can try.”

  A corpse would have sounded more optimistic. As they came around the next corner, she saw a faint glow from the windows of the winner’s cabin at the far edge of the meadow. The lightning bugs of the other night were gone, and the crickets had subdued to occasional chirps. She slowed her horse, then drew up by the stairs.

  “Will you tell your family I’m sorry about Peter?” she asked. “I never meant to get him in trouble. I hardly know how I’ll ever face your father again.” She slid off her horse and made sure she had her satchel.

  “Peter knew what he was risking, even if you didn’t,” he said.

  “That’s what Norris told me, too,” she said, but it didn’t reassure her any. “I wish I had realized what it meant.”

  A long moment passed, and she looked up to where he sat in the saddle, faintly silhouetted against the night sky. A thicker cloud passed over the moon and glowed white and gray above him. “I’ll take your reins,” he said, reaching toward her.

  As she passed him the reins, she noticed he was careful not to overlap with her fingers, and the lack of touch was suddenly charged with meaning. She understood. It wasn’t that he cared any less than his brother. He just had a different way of showing it, a way that played within the law and managed to transcend it, too. He gave any choice completely to her.

  There’s nobody in the world like Chardo Will, she thought.

  “If I can do anything for you, let me know,” he said.

  “You aren’t going to wring my neck, then?” she asked.

  “Much as I’d like to, no.”

  There was nothing left to say except good night, and then he was gone.

  CHAPTER 21

  cinnamon

  SHE CAME QUIETLY through the door, dragging her satchel by the handle, and dropped it just inside. A rich, heavenly smell of sweet pumpkin, cloves, and honey pervaded the air, and she breathed deeply. Against the globe of the kitchen lamp, a moth pinged, then fluttered away toward another oil lamp in the living room farther below. She listened for the sounds of babies, or of Josephine stirring in the bedroom to her right, but even the sound of the wind had died down, leaving the cabin quiet.

  “Leon?” she said.

  She closed the door softly behind her and stepped farther inside. He was asleep with his head on the table, the maps and her grandmother’s sketchbook spread out before him under the soft yellow glow of the lamp. One hand was pressed under his cheek, and his dark hair fell across his eyes. A gray blanket had slipped off his bare shoulder, revealing that he wore no shirt beneath.

  She hung her cloak on a hook, silently shucked off her boots, and tiptoed sock-foot into the kitchen where the warm, homey redolence was even stronger. It helped her calm down slightly. He had tidied up, leaving a bowl overturned to air-dry by the sink. Gripping the oven door, she swung it open for a quick peek and found two loaves of pumpkin bread, risen and golden brown. She grabbed a towel for a hot pad, jimmied the pans out, and set them on the wooden counter to cool.

  By the time she looked out to the table again, Leon was awake, blinking heavily in her direction.

  “You’re back,” he said.

  She came down the two steps. “Your bread was done.”

  He rubbed his nose inelegantly and nodded. “There isn’t any cinnamon here. Have you noticed that? It won’t taste right, but I had a craving—” His voice trailed off and his gaze turned attentive. “What’s wrong?”

  “I’ve done something terrible.”

  “Is the baby okay?”

  She moved nearer into the lamplight. “The baby and mother are fine. It’s Peter.”

  Leon lifted his eyebrows, then he hitched
his blanket over his shoulder and leaned back, crossing his arms. He was fully awake now. “This would be Chardo Peter. Boyfriend Number Two. Am I right?” His voice turned lazy. “Or is he Boyfriend Number One now?”

  “Don’t tease me.” She spread her fingers on the table and slumped into a chair kitty-corner to his. “This is really bad. I have to go down again in the morning. There’s going to be a trial.”

  “What did he do?”

  Until that moment, she had not guessed how impossible it was going to be to tell Leon what had happened. Telling Will, by comparison, had been nothing. She loosened her hair from behind her left ear to let it slide forward and ducked her face down.

  “You always do that. That thing with your hair, when you’re upset,” he said quietly, and leaned forward. She felt his touch skim her hair, and then he gently tucked the loose lock back behind her ear again. Her scar tingled. She held still, frozen, while his hand slid down her white sleeve to her hand. It made it even worse that he was being nice.

  She curled her fingers into a ball and drew back from him.

  “Don’t, Gaia. Just tell me what’s wrong,” he said. “It can’t be that bad, unless you did something stupid, like kiss him in public.”

  She thunked her face into her hands.

  “You didn’t,” he said.

  “I didn’t mean to.”

  Leon stood, pushing his chair back. “I’m going to get a shirt on,” he said. “Don’t you move.”

  “They’re going to put him in the stocks, Leon! And then prison! I don’t know for how long.”

  “And this is what bothers you? That he’s going to prison?” he demanded.

  “It’s the whole thing!” she exploded. “All I did was kiss him. One kiss! It just happened. And now he’s accused of attempted rape. I can’t take this place anymore. It’s just not right. Any of it.”

  “Now you see.”

  She glared up at him. “Don’t give me that,” she said. “I saw it before, too, but I didn’t see any way to make it change. Now we don’t have a choice.”

  “‘We,’” he echoed. His expression was a mix of mockery, confusion, and anguish. “How could you do it, Gaia?”

 
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