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       Prized, p.26

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  As they passed the Chardos’ place, she glanced over her left shoulder and saw the cabin windows were dark. The Matrarc sat back again and smoothed the blanket over her lap.

  “Your own children could be the last generation here if no more girls are born,” Gaia said. “Mx. Josephine’s baby Junie could be the very last girl. Doesn’t that terrify you?”

  “Terrify? No. I’ll grant that we’ve reached a critical time. It’s my hope that we’ll stay civilized for as long as possible, right up to the end.”

  It sounded awful to Gaia. A death sentence for the entire community. “Is that really better than trying to leave?”

  The Matrarc laughed. “Where to? That nihilistic, abusive place you come from? Even if we could, why should we give up our peaceful ways to go there and be destroyed? No. There’s no disgrace in dying here, and that’s what we want to do, without being frustrated by false hope.”

  “Are you sure?” Gaia asked.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Are you sure your civilized death in paradise is what the majority wants?”

  The Matrarc’s eyebrows drew together as she turned toward Gaia. “Tell me something,” the Matrarc said in her melodious alto. “Are you aware of a way we can leave Sylum? Be truthful with me now.”

  Gaia let the horse pull the carriage a dozen more paces while she tried to decide how to reply. The Matrarc would see through any lie, but the more she thought of it, the more reluctant she was to hand over her discovery about the rice flower.

  “I was going to tell you, but now Peter’s on trial,” Gaia said.

  “At least you aren’t lying to me outright yet. That you’ve found a way to leave is quite amazing, actually,” the Matrarc said. “You could cull out all the healthy, strong, young people and leave the rest of us here to die off more quickly. The young families will be thrilled.”

  “That’s not the idea,” Gaia said, appalled.

  The Matrarc’s sightless gaze turned distant. “No?” she said. “How did I lose you again so quickly?”

  “You haven’t lost me,” Gaia said, growing confused. “I’ve obeyed you as I promised. I’ve been good.” She gave the reins an extra flick, urging the horse along.

  “I fear for you, Mlass Gaia,” the Matrarc said. “You should be trusting me, not trying to undermine me.”

  Gaia didn’t know how the Matrarc was making her doubt her own mind again, but she was. She could see the lodge ahead now, and the sunlight dawning into the commons. The four stocks were still in shadow, but she already imagined and feared what could happen there. She pushed back her uncertainties and focused on one thing she knew.

  “I won’t let you put Peter in the stocks if I can help it,” Gaia said. “He’s no more guilty of a crime than I am.”

  The Matrarc didn’t reply. She smoothed a hand over her belly, and then straightened her back conspicuously. Gaia knew she was due in another week or so and wondered if she would say something about beginning labor, but the Matrarc only sighed.

  “Tired?” Gaia asked.

  “Always.”

  Gaia guided the horse toward the lodge, and it came to a stop at an angle before the front porch. “We’re here,” Gaia said.

  “Set the brake. Get Norris or someone to help me down.”

  Several men were rising from the benches in the commons. Chardo Will was there with his father and his uncles. In a gesture that struck Gaia as poignantly ironic, it was Peter’s father, Sid, who came forward to help the Matrarc down from the carriage and lead her into the lodge.

  CHAPTER 23

  the tribunal

  THE MATRARC TAPPED with her red cane, and her cloak remained parted over the full swell of her belly as she headed into the lodge. Judging her silhouette, Gaia saw that the baby had dropped, and she had the sense that the Matrarc could go into labor at any time. Gaia bet that the Matrarc knew it, too.

  Chardo Sid passed Gaia on his way out and nodded politely. She glanced behind her to see Will standing with a hand on his hip, watching her wordlessly. Clearly they intended to wait there, just outside, until Peter’s verdict was determined.

  Inside the atrium, two tables had been pushed together, and eight women were assembled around them, Mlady Maudie and Mlady Roxanne among them. Gaia had expected something more formal, but they were chatting, and two of them had their knitting out. Gaia recognized Peony’s mother and several others, like Mlady Eva, who were regularly at the lodge with the Matrarc. One was nursing her baby, and when she glanced up, Gaia was surprised to see it was Mlady Beebe. She looked tired, but her hair was clean and tidily back in a bun, and her face was scrubbed. She gave Gaia a faint smile.

  “You should be resting,” Gaia said.

  “I’m all right,” Mlady Beebe said. “It’s only for a few minutes, and then I’m going back to bed.”

  Mlady Maudie pulled out a chair for the Matrarc and brought a stool so she could prop up her feet. “Thanks, Mlady Maudie. You’re always so thoughtful. Sit here, Mlass Gaia. By me. So I can hold your hand.”

  “I’d rather not.”

  “You will do so nevertheless,” said the Matrarc.

  Startled, Gaia looked around at the other women, who regarded her soberly. The chatting had stopped. Gaia took her place on the straight-backed chair and shifted it closer to the table. She set her satchel on the floor. The Matrarc’s left hand was open, palm up on the table, and as Gaia lightly set her hand in hers, the Matrarc’s warm fingers closed around her own. There was no possible way Gaia could pretend to be calm.

  “There. We’re ready,” the Matrarc said. “Thank you all for coming on such short notice. I really hope to have this resolved quickly so you can get out and about soon.”

  “It’s no trouble,” Mlady Roxanne said, adjusting her glasses. “We’re glad to help.”

  “Mlady Beebe, why don’t you begin,” the Matrarc said.

  “First, I want to say how grateful I am to Mlass Gaia for all her help yesterday. She’s a first-rate midwife. We’re so lucky to have her with us.”

  “Duly noted,” the Matrarc said. “Tell us what happened when she was leaving.”

  “The last I saw her, she took her satchel of supplies and left the bedroom,” Mlady Beebe said. “After that, I heard her go out, but I didn’t actually see anything more myself. Mlady Maudie has a better idea than I do after that. She’s the one who saw them in the yard.”

  “When did Mlady Maudie arrive?” the Matrarc asked.

  Mlady Beebe lifted her baby over her shoulder and patted his back in a slow, firm rhythm. “I’d say fifteen minutes after Mlass Gaia left. Twenty tops. But I wasn’t really paying attention.”

  “Thank you. Mlady Maudie, what happened when you arrived?” the Matrarc said.

  “Excuse me,” Gaia said. “I was there. You could ask me.”

  The Matrarc squeezed her hand lightly. “You’ll have a chance soon, child,” she said. “We need to establish what the witnesses saw first.”

  Mlady Maudie rested her arms on the table and dovetailed her fingers together. Her blond hair was cut in a clean line that curved at the base of her neck, and she sat straight, speaking succinctly as if she’d prepared what to say. “I was coming back with Mlady Beebe’s kids and their uncles when we came into the yard and saw horses there. I looked over, naturally, and there were two people closely embracing in the shadows. When Roger opened the door, the two people took a moment to move apart, and then we all saw they were Mlass Gaia and Chardo Peter.”

  The calm precision of Mlady Maudie’s testimony made Gaia anxious. The other cuzines were certain to believe anything she said.

  “Chardo has no prior misconduct, has he?” the Matrarc said.

  The women didn’t speak, but there were several quick glances around the table.

  “We don’t count what happened with Mlady Adele,” the Matrarc said. “Was there ever anything else?”

  “No,” Mlady Roxanne said.

  “Then what happened next?” the Matrarc sa
id.

  “I asked Roger’s oldest brother Doerring to apprehend Chardo, who did not resist,” Mlady Maudie continued. “Mlass Gaia, on the other hand, became extremely upset. She tried to interfere with Doerring.”

  “The whole thing was totally unnecessary,” Gaia broke in. “I was completely fine.” She itched to take her hand away from the Matrarc’s.

  “Be calm,” the Matrarc said to her quietly. “Were they both fully clothed when they were discovered?”

  Gaia flinched. It was insulting. An awful idea struck her: if this interrogation were about her and Leon, how different the answers would be. She could feel heat beginning in her cheeks.

  “Yes,” Mlady Maudie said. “She was a little mussed, but nothing more.”

  “Was there any other evidence of contact between them? Anything else that was directly observed?” the Matrarc asked. “It must have been quite dark.”

  “His hands were under her cloak when the light first fell on them,” Mlady Maudie said.

  Gaia blushed more deeply, humiliated, but could not argue.

  “Anything else?” the Matrarc asked.

  “She admitted, herself, and I quote, ‘It was only a kiss,’” Mladie Maudie added coldly.

  “Only to persuade you that nothing more happened,” Gaia said.

  The women began to whisper.

  Mlady Maudie sat back with a sad, satisfied smile. “You see? Such disgraceful conduct I’d never seen. I hardly knew how to deal with her. Thankfully, Norris Emmett came by then and he was able to reason with her.”

  The Matrarc spoke quietly to Gaia. “You admit it?”

  Gaia took a deep breath, scrambling to regain her temper and barely succeeding. “What I did with him is nobody else’s business. That’s what I should have said.”

  The Matrarc shifted in her chair and repositioned her elbow, as if holding hands were uncomfortable for her, too.

  “Please,” Gaia said, flexing her fingers and trying to draw away.

  The Matrarc’s clasp closed more firmly. “You’ll stay where you are.”

  On the other side of the table, Mlady Roxanne tapped a finger against the wooden surface, then tucked her dark hair behind her ear. “If you please, Mlady Olivia,” she said. “She’s young. She’s new to us. There is no doubt she didn’t know the severity of what she was doing.”

  “That, I’m afraid, is the point,” the Matrarc said. “Chardo knew. How old is he?”

  The women looked around the table at each other. Gaia waited, but no one seemed to have the answer.

  “Nineteen,” Gaia said. “Peter’s nineteen.”

  “And how old are you?” Mlady Roxanne asked.

  “Sixteen.”

  There were more looks around the table.

  “Three years’ difference,” Mlady Roxanne said quietly.

  Mlady Maudie began flipping through a small book of papers.

  “The law is clear in such a case,” the Matrarc said. “Attempted rape. First offense. Three years’ difference with the girl at sixteen. That means twelve hours in the stocks. A week in prison. Do I have that right, Mlady Maudie?”

  Gaia could not believe what she was hearing. Her fingers twisted briefly in the Matrarc’s hand before the Matrarc’s fingers tightened again to still her.

  Mlady Maudie nodded at a page in her book. “Yes. You always do.”

  “If he did something,” Gaia protested, “if he really tried to rape me, such a sentence might make some sense, but for a kiss? You can’t call a kiss attempted rape. You can’t even put it in the same category as a violent crime. It’s an insult to any woman who’s ever really been raped.”

  “It’s the law,” Mlady Maudie said.

  “Then it’s time to change it,” Gaia objected. “Aren’t we in charge?”

  “We don’t change our laws on a whim,” Mlady Roxanne said. “This is only a small tribunal called in an emergency to hear Chardo’s case. The kind of change you’re talking about requires all the cuzines here, and we’d have a lengthy debate.”

  “Then call everyone,” Gaia said.

  “We’re scheduled to meet again in three days,” Mlady Maudie said. “We can put it on the agenda for then.”

  “Then postpone Peter’s sentencing until then,” Gaia said.

  The Matrarc was shaking her head. “It’s better to get it over with,” she said. “Over and done. If it weren’t Chardo, we wouldn’t even be hesitating. We can’t appear to play favorites.”

  “Your instinct to play favorites is leading you toward fairness,” Gaia argued. “You know the law is wrong.”

  “I don’t,” the Matrarc said. “It protects our mlasses. It gives them the chance to consider the men freely and comfortably without ever being pressured, and the men learn respect.”

  “Compulsory respect,” Gaia said.

  “What’s the difference?” Mlady Maudie said.

  “Accept it,” the Matrarc said. “Every society has its customs and laws. You just chose to ignore one that matters here. Or more accurately, Chardo did. Would you care to tell us which of you reached for the other first?”

  Startled, Gaia thought back, remembering how she’d bumped into him unknowingly in the darkness and how easily he’d drawn her back with him, putting his arms around her.

  The Matrarc’s fingers clasped hers firmly again for a moment, as if she’d felt Gaia’s answer in her hand.

  “I thought not,” the Matrarc said. “I’ll grant you one concession. I don’t think it would be right to keep Chardo in limbo for three days, but if it is truly likely that we would change the law, I would allow it.” She gestured around the table. “We’re a fair sample of the cuzines right here. From us, we can guess how a vote among all of the cuzines would go. How many of you are in favor of revising the law regarding attempted rape? Say ‘Ay.’”

  Gaia said “Ay,” and she heard an echo from across the table as Mlady Roxanne agreed with her. They were the only two voices.

  Then, very softly, Peony’s mother spoke. “Ay,” she said.

  The other women at the table looked at her. She said nothing more.

  “Those opposed, say ‘Nay,’” the Matrarc said.

  Six voices rose in a negative, and the sound fell away to nothing.

  Gaia jerked her hand out of the Matrarc’s. “You’re just cruel, all of you,” Gaia said.

  “Watch yourself, Mlass Gaia,” Mlady Beebe said. “We’re keeping our girls safe. You just have to be more careful next time.”

  “Not to get caught?” Gaia demanded.

  “No. Not to let yourself get in such a situation at all,” Mlady Beebe said.

  “You’ll learn to respect our ways in time,” Mlady Eva added more gently. “They’re good ways.”

  “When an innocent person gets punished, that’s not good,” Gaia said. “I know that much. The men would never support such a law.”

  “So now you’re suggesting that the men should be allowed to make the laws? Do you think they should vote?” Mlady Maudie demanded. “Is that what this is really about?”

  “If that’s what it takes to have justice,” Gaia said.

  There was an outburst around the able, and laughter as well. The Matrarc frowned and rapped her knuckles on the table.

  “My cuzines, please,” the Matrarc said. “We will stick to the matter at hand, and that is Chardo Peter’s crime. You need to understand this, Mlass Gaia. Even though you consider him innocent, he still committed a crime against the law as it stands now.” She made another gesture around the table. “The sentence holds? Say ‘Ay.’”

  The council agreed, unanimously even Mlady Roxanne and Peony’s mother. Gaia was in such shock she couldn’t speak.

  The Matrarc touched a hand to her monocle. “Then tell his father, Mlady Maudie, and have him fetched up from the prison immediately. The time starts as soon as he can be put in the stocks. The days are shorter now, and I don’t want him out in the dark any longer than he has to be. Remember, no food or water. Mlass Gaia, will
you drive me back up to the bluff? It’s my son’s birthday,” the Matrarc said to the others. “Little Jerry. He’s four.”

  The women smiled, relaxing into casual chat, and began to rise from the table. Mlady Maudie went out the front door. That abruptly, the meeting was over, and Gaia was stunned. The arrogance, the confidence of the women was staggering, as if they hadn’t taken one word she’d said seriously. Mlady Beebe was showing her new son to the woman beside her, who set aside her knitting to coo. Disgusted, Gaia reached down for her satchel.

  “Mlass Gaia,” Mlady Roxanne began. “I hope you’ll understand.”

  Gaia glared at her teacher, backing away. “I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

  Noises came from above, and she looked up to see several of the mlasses coming out of their rooms. Sunlight was pouring in through the clerestory above. The day was beginning. People were going about their business. Norris must be back in the kitchen, starting breakfast.

  She pivoted on her heel and strode rapidly out the front door to the veranda, where she gripped the railing and looked out to the commons. Peter’s brother and father and uncles stood in stoic silence near the stocks, clearly having just received word of the verdict, and Will lifted a hand to his father’s shoulder. Gaia couldn’t bear it. In the commons, other people were gathering to hear the news. She expected them to look somber, concerned, but strangely, perhaps because it was the first time in weeks that the sun had appeared and the day promised to be spectacularly clear and beautiful, there was an undercurrent of joy in the way people smiled, greeting each other. Already a child was playing with a toy truck in the dirt at his father’s feet.

  From the other end of the commons, several men came riding in on horseback. More people were following on foot behind, and as Gaia squinted to see more clearly, she identified Peter in the middle of the riders. Someone was leading his horse, and as he came nearer, she realized his hands were tied behind him. She had an awful recollection of the last occasion when she’d seen him ride in, only that time, he’d been an outrider leading in prisoners and one of them had been dead.

 
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