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       Prized, p.25

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  She faltered back in her chair. “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “What did he do, that it just ‘happened’?”

  She gripped the armrests, hard. To her alarm, he hitched his chair nearer and sat again so that his face was level with hers. He set his warm hands over hers, lightly pinning hers to the armrests, and the motion left his blanket to slide loose from his shoulders again. Warmth like she’d never felt before traveled up her arms.

  “Was it like this?” he asked, leaning nearer.

  She licked her lips, shaking her head. “Leon,” she said. She leaned back in the chair, but somehow that only brought him nearer, so that she could almost feel the smooth warmth in his chest. She tried to draw away her hands, but instead her fingers intertwined with his and ended up on her lap, where the fabric of her skirt rumpled slowly up her legs.

  “What I wouldn’t give to know what you’re thinking,” he said.

  Just whatever you do, don’t kiss me right now, she thought.

  But he leaned forward until no more than a millimeter of lamplight separated them. For a long moment, she resisted the appeal of his intent gaze, wondering how he could feel for her what she saw there, and fearing what he did to her. If anybody could use her own instincts against herself, it was Leon.

  “I lied, all those weeks ago. About my wish,” he said. His eyes gleamed with a quiet, private light. “This is what I was really thinking.”

  His lips touched hers and she closed her eyes, letting her head sink back against the chair. With unhurried restraint, he kissed her softly, and long, and slow, until she was a tangle of melting pleasure and frustration.

  “That,” she murmured, stopping to swallow and catch her breath. “Is not fair.”

  “Good,” he said.

  He kissed her again, only not so softly anymore.

  She didn’t know quite how it happened, but she was fully on his lap, with his bare arms around her, and everything about him felt warm and strong under her fingertips, even the scar lines she found across the back of his shoulders. She shifted her weight, and he broke away suddenly, holding her quite still.

  “I think we’re going to have a little problem,” he said. “Hold still.”

  She looked into his face, surprised. Her eyes felt hazy, as if she were coming back from another land. She touched a finger to his jaw, liking his faint, tactile shadow of beard. “What’s the matter?”

  His laugh was low and rumbly. “Nothing. It’s just funny that Peter’s the one going to the stocks for what he did.”

  She’d forgotten about Peter. She’d forgotten about everything. Now she tried to disentangle her arms from around him.

  “No, you don’t,” he said. “Stay there.”

  “What is wrong with me?” she asked. “It’s like I have no self-restraint at all.”

  He laughed again. “I see. Please tell me you didn’t get this far with him.”

  “I can’t be on your lap,” she said.

  “Well, excuse me. You are. I would know.”

  She brushed her hair back around her ears and tried to straighten her blouse, but it was hard with his arms still around her, and even worse when he tried to help a little. She gave him a shy, embarrassed smile.

  “I’m really sorry,” she said. She badly wanted to kiss him again.

  “Don’t say that.”

  Slowly she got up, steadying one hand against the table. He dropped the blanket across his lap, and as she guessed the significance of that particular gesture, her embarrassment quadrupled. Her gaze flew up to his face, and he shrugged, relaxing his arm casually around the back of the chair.

  She wanted to die.

  “It’s okay, Gaia,” he said.

  She threw out a hand. “I’m just so bad at this.”

  “As if I’m any good at it?” He laughed, his smile sweet. “Don’t be embarrassed. I’m fine. In fact, I have a good idea.”

  “What?” she asked, still mortified.

  “Why don’t you marry me?”

  CHAPTER 22

  paradise

  “MARRY YOU? Are you out of your mind?” she asked.

  “Not at all. Think about it. It would solve all kinds of problems.”

  “Like what?”

  “Like Peter won’t kiss you again and get sent to the stocks. I’d kill him first.”

  “Leon! This is not helpful.”

  “It makes perfect sense to me. Have you thought about what will happen next month, when I’m not here?”

  “What do you mean?”

  He ran a hand around his jaw. “I doubt the next thirty-two captains will pick me to be on either team. If I can’t play, I can’t win again, either.”

  She was still missing something.

  “You really don’t see it, do you?” he asked. He braced his hands on his knees. “So modest. Forgive me if I point out the obvious. You’ll get chosen by the next winner. Someone else will have the same opportunities with you that I’ve just had.”

  Her mind went blank white. Then it slammed back on and horror shot through her. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I can’t be the prize.”

  “You don’t think so?” he asked. “Not even for Peter if he’s out of prison by then? Or how about that other one who was captain last time. The big blond. Xave.”

  The idea repulsed her. She hadn’t been thinking forward at all. Now it all hit her: the cycle of the thirty-two games drove things not only for the men who had a chance to compete, but for all of the mlasses, too.

  “The only way to not be eligible,” she said slowly, “is for me to pick someone. To get engaged. Or become a libby.” That’s what Dinah had done, and Gaia began to see what it had been like for her, getting picked as the prize month after month. Gaia couldn’t let that happen to her, especially not now. “What am I going to do?”

  “At last you see the brilliance of my proposal.”

  She studied his watchful blue eyes, and now she saw he really meant it.

  A tiny voice in the back of her head reminded her that Peter had warned her of such a moment, the same Peter who was now in prison because of her. She’d messed up everything.

  “I can’t,” she said. “You must know I can’t. We’ve hardly been talking to each other.”

  His expression became grave. “It isn’t always easy between us. I admit that. But it’s right between us, always.”

  She held very still.

  “Every tiny, happy thing makes me want to share it with you,” he went on, leaning forward. “I thought I would get over this, but I can’t, and I’m done trying. I understand you like no one else here ever can. Even now, you’re just afraid. You’re worried you’ll hurt Peter’s feelings if you rush into something. Right?”

  “It isn’t fear,” she said. “It isn’t that simple.”

  “Then what is it?” he asked. “You can’t really like him. Not more than me. Do you?”

  “No.” Not more. Differently.

  His eyes flicked in the light. “You can’t believe what this is like for me, living up here with you, getting pushed away every other minute. You belong with me. When will you see that?”

  She didn’t understand how he could be so sure. It was actually freaking her out a little. She leaned back against the table, frowning. “You aren’t even that nice to me all the time,” she said.

  He choked out a laugh. “Like when? When you lie to me?”

  “I don’t lie to you. I just can’t tell you everything. And why should I? You scare me sometimes.”

  “Me?”

  “What about after the thirty-two games?” she reminded him.

  “Do I really even need to apologize for that?” He stood, pacing away from her toward the window. She watched him lean his head against the glass for a long moment. In the kitchen, the oven made a ticking noise as it cooled, and inside her, a knot twisted itself even tighter. He turned finally, his eyes troubled. “All right,” he said in a low voice. “I’m sorry. And I’m sorry for the next morning, too
. Of course I am. And for everything I ever said when my heart—” he stopped. He ran a hand back through his hair, glanced to the side, and then back to her. “Don’t make me do this. Leave me some pride.”

  She gripped the edge of the table, stunned by the enormity of what he’d admitted. He’d loved her all that time, when she hadn’t even known, when loving her had brought him suffering and prison and heartache.

  “I’m sorry, too. About a lot of things,” she said. Her cheeks grew warm with shame. “Including what happened with Peter tonight.” She did regret that. Already her moment of happiness with Peter seemed ages past, permanently obscured by what had happened since. “I’m sorry about what’s going to happen tomorrow, too.”

  He folded his arms across his chest. “You’re going to his trial to try to free him, aren’t you?”

  “I have to.”

  He considered a long moment, then spoke quietly. “I can’t help noticing that it’s him in trouble that makes you want to change things.”

  Gaia felt her heart half break. She should have done it for Leon. She knew that now, but it had taken Leon coming back into her life, waking her out of her blindness, for her to see it. It was all twisted around. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But you do see, don’t you?”

  “I suppose you can’t help it. You have to be noble.” He closed his eyes briefly, and then regarded her again without smiling. “What will you do for him?”

  She let her gaze travel over the maps on the table, and ended up peering at the globe of the lamp and the glowing flame within.

  “I’ll try to reason with the cuzines,” she said. “And if that doesn’t work, I’ll try to change the law.”

  “And if that still doesn’t work, what then?”

  Anxiety coursed through her. “I don’t know exactly. Something.”

  “You won’t give up, will you?”

  She shook her head. “I can’t have someone else punished unfairly because of me. Not again.”

  He stepped nearer to her, beside the table, and reached for the loon feather peeking out of her grandmother’s sketchbook. “Aren’t you concerned that the Matrarc will exile you if you fight her?”

  Her gaze froze on the feather. “Being exiled wouldn’t be a death sentence anymore,” she said. “We’ve found an antidote to the miasma, Peter and I.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “I was so happy when I realized it,” she said. “That’s why I didn’t think when I was, when he, when we were—”

  “I get the point. What did you discover?”

  She ignored the heat in her cheeks and reached impulsively for the sketchbook. She pulled out the poem she’d deciphered and held it flat under the light. “It’s the black rice flower. Smoking it eases the withdrawal symptoms from the miasma addiction.”

  “That’s not bad,” he said, impressed. “If the miasma is opiate-based as we thought, a lesser drug can take the edge off the worst withdrawal symptoms.”

  “My grandmother came so close! Why didn’t she see it?” Her gaze caught on the most puzzling line again: “Obtuse not be smoke i,” and a new idea came to her. Perhaps it was a directive: “Obtuse not be. Smoke.” The i might go with the next line.

  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

  She leaned over the table, peering more closely at the poem. And then she saw the other clue, the hidden one, right in plain sight.

  It was coming down the poem acrostically, the first letters of each line: lily or rice. Gaia was stupefied. A shiver ran through her, lifting the hairs on the back of her arms, and her eyes rounded. “Unbelievable.”

  “What do you see?” he asked.

  She ran her finger slowly down the poem. “It’s here,” she said. “Lily or rice. She actually knew. She’d narrowed it down to two possible cures. She wrote them here so my parents would know. Only my parents.” She told him briefly about Norris’s account of her grandmother’s death. Then the truth came clear to her. “She chose the wrong one. She smoked the lily-poppy instead, thinking it would save her, and it killed her.”

  He set the feather gently beside her fingers. “Are you sure?”

  “It’s all I can think. But now we can leave. We just have to tinker with the right dosage.”

  “Do you realize what you’re saying?” he said, turning to face her. “Would you seriously leave Sylum and go back to the wasteland? Or the Enclave?”

  A chill passed through her, and she looked up to meet his gaze. “We might all have to go,” she said.

  Dawn, with its gray light, was working through the window when Gaia woke to find Josephine nudging her shoulder. “The Matrarc’s here for you,” she said softly.

  Gaia blinked heavily and rolled up. Aside from staying up late with Leon, she’d been awake with Maya crying in the night, and when she had returned to bed, she’d found it nearly impossible to sleep, anxious as she was about Peter.

  Josephine gave her a quick hug when she was ready. “Good luck.”

  Gaia wanted to see Leon before she left, but his bedroom door was closed.

  She tiptoed nearer and tested the latch, listening. The door opened noiselessly. On a narrow table, a shaving brush and a dish with a nugget of soap lay beside a straight razor that gleamed in the gray light. His pants were folded over the back of a chair, and his shirt was on a hanger propped on the edge of the open window. She peeked around farther to his bed, where he lay on his stomach in deep slumber, his mouth agape, his dark wool blankets in a tangle. One pale-arched foot hung off the mattress.

  She instinctively looked for the birthmarked tattoo on his ankle, but the angle was wrong. Even without finding it, she realized she was looking for Orion. An elusive sadness and comfort, both, sifted through her as she remembered her parents. Leon would always be a bind to them, to home.

  She could hear his quiet breathing, and with protective tenderness, she couldn’t wake him just to say goodbye. She backed up and softly closed the door.

  She checked her satchel to bring her supplies with her as she habitually did, and paused to wind her locket watch, twisting the tiny peg back and forth. The ticking was loud in the silence. A tingle of nervousness ran through her as she thought of what lay ahead, and on instinct, she looped the necklace over her head again. Then she grabbed her cloak and stepped outside.

  A carriage waited at the door, its shape sharp and black in the cool gray light. The Matrarc’s belly was so large that her cloak couldn’t cover it, and she’d tucked a dark blanket around herself. Her husband spun down from beside her as Gaia descended the step.

  “Good morning, Mlass.” Dominic handed her up. “Can you drive?” he asked.

  “You’re not coming with us?” Gaia asked.

  “I’m staying with the children. It’s Jerry’s birthday, so hopefully the tribunal won’t last too long. Here, take these,” he said, passing her the reins. “The horse knows the way. Come back to us soon, Olivia.”

  “I will,” the Matrarc said.

  Gaia gripped the little metal armrest while she wedged her feet against the dash, and then she lifted the cool leather of the reins in her two hands. She looked doubtfully ahead at the horse’s ears.

  “Ha!” Dominic said, giving the horse a slap on the rear to get them going.

  Gaia lurched back, and then forward again.

  “Loosen up a little,” the Matrarc said. “Even I can tell you’ve got him too tight.”

  Gaia complied, and the horse headed into the morning mist. Down below, the marsh was lost in a soft layer of fog that drifted up into the valley, and far out, the Bachsdatters’ island lifted out like a distant ruin. Gaia shivered. Now
that she knew the miasma was addictive, it was like watching an insidious poison blanket the village.

  “How’s Peter?” Gaia asked.

  “He’s fine. How are you is the question.”

  “I’m perfectly fine, of course,” Gaia said. “This whole thing is really unnecessary. Can’t you just let him go?”

  The Matrarc put her hand on the dashboard as they rattled over a rough spot in the road and started down the bluff.

  “You’ll have to trust the cuzines to come to a fair decision,” the Matrarc said. “It’s not within my power to release him without a tribunal, thankfully. I wouldn’t care to have that responsibility on my hands.”

  “But they’ll listen to you, won’t they?”

  “You have it backward. I listen to them. They decide.”

  Gaia steered the horse around the bend, and the road flattened out again.

  “Mx. Josephine said the cuzines voted my grandmother out because she was crazy,” Gaia said. “She said my grandmother waded in the marsh at night and tried to kick the expools out of Sylum. Is any of that true?”

  The Matrarc laughed. “Your grandmother liked the bioluminescence, but she was far from crazy. And she resigned. Were you able to decipher her letter?”

  “You knew about that?”

  The Matrarc nodded. “Dominic reminded me of it. I used to wonder if it was a suicide note.”

  “It was a bitter, angry note saying she’d wasted her efforts on fools,” Gaia said. “She urged my parents to go back to the Enclave.”

  “That fits,” the Matrarc said. “It’s strange to think now that the girl shortage she predicted came true even faster than she expected.”

  “Then isn’t it time to do something about it?”

  “Like what? I know what Chardo Will found, and there’s no cure for that,” the Matrarc said. “Your grandmother urged the expools to experiment with leaving, and many of them died. No. Hope is a kind of curse, Mlass Gaia, just as destructive as despair.”

  “So Sylum is better off without hope? You’ve actively discouraged curiosity.”

  “I didn’t have to discourage it,” the Matrarc said. “It’s much easier for people to be grateful. Think about it, my dear. In many ways, it’s a paradise here, a simple, beautiful life of abundance. Once people accept that and focus on their own lives and their own families, they’re happy.”

 
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