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       Prized, p.27

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Now Peter was the prisoner.

  The people in the commons gathered nearer, leaving a path between them for the procession. The Matrarc came out to the porch, tapping softly with her cane, and stood to Gaia’s right. Good, Gaia thought. She should at least be here to witness this.

  From the right came the sound of wheels, and Gaia looked over to see Dinah driving a wagon. Josephine sat beside her on the bench, holding her baby, and as the wagon turned before the lodge, Gaia saw Leon was in the back, holding Maya. She hadn’t realized how badly she wanted them there until she saw them.

  “Is that Mx. Dinah’s wagon I hear?” the Matrarc asked.

  “Yes,” Gaia said. “She’s brought Leon and Mx. Josephine and the babies.”

  “She would.”

  The entourage from the prison arrived before the lodge, and the guards dismounted into the dust. Peter’s profile was aimed toward his father, who silently lifted a hand. One of the guards spoke to Peter and reached up to him, and then, with his hands still tied behind him, Peter swung off the horse. Several buttons of his pale blue shirt had come undone, and his lip, from where he’d been hit the night before, was discolored.

  “He looks bad,” came a soft voice from Gaia’s left, and she realized Peony and the other mlasses had come out to the porch beside her. “I’m sorry, Mlass Gaia.”

  I can’t stand this, Gaia thought. She shrugged away from the others and started down the steps. The guards were moving Peter forward. Four sets of stocks were positioned to the right of the lodge. Each device of heavy, weathered framework had three holes cut between two hinged beams of wood. Peter would have his head in the middle hole, his wrists in the outer holes, and he could stand, leaning over, or kneel against a board at the base of the stocks. She could already imagine that the discomfort would be only partly caused by the stocks themselves, but the time, pinned there, would cause his own body to strain against itself, and there’d be no relief, not even for a moment. Thirst and hunger would torment him under the noonday sun. Mosquitoes, at nightfall, would be another kind of torture. She only hoped he’d be numb to it all by then.

  They stood him before the nearest stocks, facing the commons, and untied his hands. As if he’d been tied so long that his muscles were stiff, Peter curled his arms forward and hunched up his shoulders for a moment. He stared bleakly at the stocks. The voices in the crowd fell silent. He carefully did up the buttons that had come undone on his shirt. Finally, with slow fingers, he straightened his collar.

  The small gesture of dignity sliced through her like nothing had before, and that was when she made her decision.

  She turned to the wagon where Dinah and Josephine sat watching with sober expressions. Near them, Leon stood holding Maya against his shoulder. Gaia quietly set her satchel and cloak in the back of the wagon and briefly touched her locket watch to be sure it was around her neck.

  “Leon,” she said. “I need you.”

  His blue eyes met hers squarely and for a long moment he studied her. Then he nodded, ready to do whatever she needed. He passed Maya to Dinah so his hands were free and pushed up his sleeves.

  They were lifting the top bar of Peter’s stocks as she strode forward. She wasn’t going to say anything to Peter at all. She couldn’t. She was already trembling with fear. The hinge squeaked as they brought the bar down on top of his neck and wrists, and she heard the click as a peg was dropped in the slot to keep it closed. There was no need for a lock. No one would dare undo the stocks until the full term of the punishment was meted out.

  Gaia kept walking, with Leon following, until she came to the second stocks, but she was too shaky to be able to open up the top part herself. She turned to Leon.

  “Help me in,” she said.

  “You can’t,” he said quietly.

  “I must.”

  She couldn’t look to her left, where Peter was. She couldn’t look beyond him to Will or the cuzines on the porch. But she could lift her pleading eyes to Leon, and she knew that she could count on him.

  He lifted the top bar of the stocks.

  “Look after Maya for me,” she said.

  “I will.”

  “What’s going on?” came a voice from the crowd.

  Gaia tucked her hair behind her ears. She set her neck over the center dip in the wood. She felt along the top of the beam until she came to the places for her wrists, and set them there, and then she closed her eyes as Leon set the top beam, carefully, back in place, and audibly dropped in the peg to keep her there.

  CHAPTER 24

  the stocks

  SHE COULDN’T LOOK UP to see them, but she could hear their voices.

  “But she didn’t do anything wrong.”

  “Did the Matrarc sentence her, too?”

  “He’s in for twelve hours. Is she, too?”

  “Isn’t she supposed to be up at the winner’s cabin?”

  “Look at the Matrarc. I’ve never seen her so furious.”

  And then a nearer voice, a man’s voice. “This is just wrong. You there. Let her out.”

  “She doesn’t want out,” Leon said.

  “But she’s innocent,” the man said. “I was there last night. I know.” She recognized the voice of Doerring, the big man in the striped shirt.

  “She believes that Chardo is innocent also,” Leon said.

  “I can’t stand to see her in there. It’s obscene.”

  Gaia heard the sound of metal clearing from a sheath and hoped Doerring wasn’t armed. It wouldn’t do her any good if Leon was arrested now, too.

  “Stand back, Doerring.” It was Will’s voice. His boots came within her line of sight, black and solid in the brown dirt before her. “She stays as long as she wants to.”

  “You’re crazy, the whole lot of you,” said Doerring.

  She heard more shuffling and saw more booted feet surrounding her.

  Then she heard Doerring’s voice, moving farther away. The sound of metal came again, more quietly. “Who ever heard of protesting a law by getting in the stocks?”

  “She’ll grow tired of it,” came another voice. “I left my laundry soaking. Come get me if anything happens.”

  Gaia was already growing tired of it. Five minutes in, she started feeling a strain in her ankles, of all places. She tried kneeling, and that was better for a minute, but then her knees began to hurt. It was warmer than she’d realized, too, with the morning sun weighing heavy in her full skirt. Was that a spider, very tiny, dropping down a spindle of web to her right?

  “How many are we?” came Leon’s voice.

  “I count eleven. I can go for some weapons, some pitch forks and shovels if you think we’ll need them,” said Will.

  “I don’t think so,” Leon said.

  “No weapons,” Gaia said.

  “She says no weapons,” Leon repeated.

  She tried to turn her head, but couldn’t twist far enough to see Peter’s stocks. She felt the slight tug at her neck as her locket watch bumped against the wood. “Peter?” she said. “Can you hear me?”

  His voice sounded distant. “Yes. You’ve made your point and I appreciate it. Now tell Will to let you out.”

  “It isn’t just about you anymore,” Gaia said.

  He answered something she couldn’t hear.

  “What? What did he say?” she asked.

  “He says kissing you was worth it,” Leon said. “Would you care to reply?”

  “No.”

  She squirmed to think of Leon as the go-between for such a conversation. She quit trying to look to the side and instead focused downward, seeing the frame of the stocks and the dirt directly below her head. It was going to be awkward sorting out things with Peter eventually. Far worse than awkward, actually. She tried shifting her shoulder a little. Her arms felt a little achy, like the blood wasn’t getting to them right, but if she relaxed to let them sag, it hurt her wrists.

  “I’m taking Mx. Josephine and the babies to my place,” Dinah said. “She’s really upset.
But I’ll be back after I get her settled. You plan on staying?”

  “As long as it takes,” Leon said. “I’d get in the stocks myself if I thought that would help.”

  Dinah laughed. “Somehow I don’t think you’d garner quite as much sympathy.”

  “Tell Mx. Josephine not to worry,” Gaia said. “It’s really not so bad.”

  “It looks like a regular picnic,” Dinah said. Then her voice softened. “I’ll tell her.”

  Gaia tried straightening her legs again, and her knees felt strange from the kneeling. The little spider went down farther. Her hair had come loose from her ears to hang toward the ground, further limiting her vision. She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing deep. Over the first hour, it was her arms that went numb first, and then her wrists. When she tried to move them, it made it worse, so she focused on keeping her head turned slightly, tucking her chin partly into the wood. That way she could rest her neck and still breathe. She was better standing than kneeling, too. By the second hour, standing and kneeling were equally bad, so she stayed down.

  “Any word from the Matrarc?” she asked.

  “She decided to stay down here and keep an eye on things,” Leon said. “She’s in the lodge. She could look out the window and see you if she weren’t blind.”

  “She’s going to have her baby soon,” Gaia said. “From the way she held herself sometimes, I think she was having contractions already.”

  “Does her husband know?”

  Gaia licked her lips and swallowed thickly. “It’s his son’s birthday. He stayed up on the bluff with the kids.”

  “Will you get out of the stocks if she needs you?” Leon asked.

  “Not unless she lets Peter out first.”

  There was quiet for a moment, and then voices, farther out.

  “How many of us are there?” she asked.

  “It’s about twenty-five, now,” Leon said. “They’re sitting around you and Peter, here in the sun. Not just men. Three libbies came a few minutes ago. They were telling jokes when they first came, and then they decided to stay.”

  “Hey, Mlass Gaia,” called out a woman’s voice to Gaia’s right. “We’re with you, girl. Down with the cuzines.”

  Gaia smiled slightly, but she’d been thinking, too. “Leon, I think we need to send a message to the Matrarc to make things very clear. Tell her we object to the cuzines making laws without everyone’s input. If she’ll concede she’s wrong about punishing Peter, and if she lets him out to show she’s willing to let everyone vote, then I’ll get out, too, and come take care of her when she’s in labor.”

  “Did you get all that, Will?” Leon asked.

  “Yes,” Will said. “And what if she says no?”

  “Then I’ll stay here,” Gaia said. “As long as Peter does. I can’t make any promises for after that.”

  There were voices to her left, and then Will crouched down where Gaia could see him if she turned her face slightly. His brown eyes were clouded with concern.

  “Peter says he wants you to drink something,” Will said. “He says it’s not a restriction for you.”

  The mention of drinking made her thirst worse. “The sentence is the same for both of us,” she said.

  He watched her another moment, then nodded. “All right,” he said. “I’ll bring the Matrarc your message.” He straightened again and was gone.

  A fly buzzed by, and Gaia thought she could hear her locket watch ticking. A rough place in the wood just below her chin was rubbing a raw place in her skin, and she was careful whenever she moved not to make it worse.

  “Leon?” she asked.

  “I’m here.” His voice was near, to her left. She saw the homespun fabric of his trousers bend over his knee as he sat in the dust beside her. He leaned a little nearer, so she could see his face.

  “You okay?” he asked.

  She wasn’t really. She wanted him to talk to her. “Do you think about the Enclave much?”

  He slouched lower on his elbow, settling into an angle where she could see him easily. “That’s what you want to know?”

  She smiled a little. “Just tell me something.”

  His seemed to consider a moment. “I worry a little about Genevieve.”

  “Your mother? Why?”

  “She’s the one who helped me out of V cell,” Leon said. “I worry that life isn’t very easy for her.”

  “You never told me how you got out,” Gaia said.

  Leon’s gaze turned inward and his voice became subdued. “I don’t know how many interrogation sessions I went through before she came. Genevieve brought Myrna Silk to cauterize my finger and do what she could for my back.” He winced briefly, then shrugged. “When I told Genevieve I wanted to leave, she put together some supplies and took me to the North Gate.”

  “Did your father know what she was doing?” Gaia asked.

  “He knew. The Protectorat knew.” Leon raked his hair back from his forehead. “Genevieve said he wasn’t pleased with her, but then, Genevieve wasn’t pleased with him, either.” He smiled oddly. “She said he never knew how to handle me.”

  She doubted anyone really knew how to handle Leon, least of all his father. His adoptive father, she corrected mentally. She shifted slightly and her knees felt better for a moment. “Why doesn’t that surprise me?” she said. “Do you always call your mother by her first name?”

  “No. Not when I’m with her,” Leon said. As he spoke, he doodled lines in the dirt with a little stick. “Just when I think about her. I guess I always have.” His smile warmed into something genuine. “My sister would have liked you.”

  “Really?”

  He laughed. “Why is that so strange?”

  Gaia was diverted by the idea of meeting Evelyn again some day under different circumstances. “I doubt Evelyn would be impressed if she could see me right now.”

  “Evelyn would like you, too,” he said. “But I was actually thinking of Fiona.”

  She felt oddly honored that he’d meant his favorite sister Fiona, the fragile, wild one. His family would always be complicated, she realized, even in memory. Moving away hadn’t changed that.

  “There’s something I’ve wanted to know,” she said, glancing at his doodles lines. “I didn’t know how to ask.”

  “I’m listening now.”

  She blinked as a fly passed close to her cheek. “What did you say in that note you sent me? Back when you were in prison? Peony said you wrote it in code. Was it my father’s code?”

  “A simpler version. It doesn’t matter now.”

  “I’d still like to know,” she said.

  He frowned slightly, not quite meeting her gaze. “It said ‘Orange.’”

  No single word could ever have been a stronger plea to her, or, considering that she’d refused to read it, a stronger reproach. “I hope some day you’ll forgive me,” she said.

  His blue eyes met hers directly then. “There’s nothing to forgive. I understand now what you were up against.” He turned in the direction of the lodge. “Will’s coming. I won’t be gone long.” He shifted out of her line of sight as he stood.

  She heard voices again, and then Will crouched nearer.

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

  “What did she say?”

  “She said nothing. I delivered your message, and Mlady Maudie told me the Matrarc had no reply. She’s gone into labor.”

  Gaia felt a new heaviness in her chest as her hope dwindled.

  “Thanks, Will,” she said.

  “You know you don’t have to do this,” Will said. “We can find other ways to negotiate with the cuzines.” He dropped his voice. “I can tell them what we found in the barn, if that would help.”

  “Please don’t,” Gaia said. She didn’t want Will in trouble with the Matrarc, too. “Everyone trusts you. I don’t want that to end. What we found is a separate issue.”

  Will looked away, towards her left. “Have you told Vlatir?”

&n
bsp; “No.” She swallowed with an effort. “He’d keep your secret, though, if you told him. How’s Peter?”

  “He’s holding up. And you?”

  It was getting harder to lie. “I’m fine.”

  As the sun rose higher, a dizziness came to her, and she no longer bothered trying to listen to the voices around her. Her lips grew parched. She wet herself, with a sense of relief, and then her urine dried down her legs. She knelt now, slumping backward, so that her jaw and the back of her head were wedged in the wood, and she could breathe through her nose. She couldn’t feel much anymore except the sun on her face where her hair didn’t cover it, and an exquisite burning sensation in the skin along her nose and cheeks. Her scar pulsed slowly with pain, and she thought of her mother, burning her on purpose to keep her safe.

  “Mlass Gaia?” It sounded like Dinah’s voice, but distant.

  “I think she’s sleeping,” Leon said.

  Gaia tried to move her tongue around her mouth. She cracked open her eyes and saw Leon’s legs again where he was sitting beside her in the dust.

  “Should her hands be that color?” Dinah asked.

  “Probably not,” Leon said. “Does the Matrarc want to negotiate?”

  “She says she won’t be coerced. She wants me to try to convince Gaia to give in.”

  Gaia moved her lips slowly to form the word. “No.”

  “She won’t,” Leon said.

  “The Matrarc wanted to know if I’d help her with her labor,” Dinah said. “Me. Can you imagine?”

  “Who is helping her?”

  “Mlass Taja and Dominic, and a couple of the cuzines.”

  “Not Norris?”

  “No. He’s here with us,” Dinah said. “I’m guessing that’s the end of his job cooking for the lodge.”

  “Everyone’s risking their jobs and more if this ends badly,” Leon said.

  Gaia shifted forward slightly, and an ache shot down her legs. “Peter?” she asked.

  “Peter’s not talking much,” Leon said. “He hasn’t moved in a while, either. His father’s sitting by him. Will’s been talking to people in the crowd.”

 
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