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       Prized, p.28

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  Dinah’s narrow boots angled into Gaia’s view, and then she crouched down so that Gaia could see her face. “Are you doing all right?” Dinah asked.

  “Numb,” Gaia said.

  “That’s good, I suppose.” Dinah grimaced. “I had no idea you could be so stubborn. Remind me never to get in a fight with you.”

  Gaia smiled inside, even if her face didn’t move.

  “I can’t believe all these people,” Dinah said.

  “Who?” Gaia said.

  Dinah shifted to sit down in the dirt to Gaia’s right. “There’s about two hundred, I’d say. Men mostly, and a dozen of the libbies. My boy Mikey and my brother’s family are here. I don’t know when Mlass Peony and her mother came, but they’re here. They’re the only cuzines. Boughton Phineas just came by to sit with them, too. Have you met him?”


  Gaia was glad that Peony was there. Then her mind slipped a little, and she tried to remember if the Matrarc was in labor. Had someone said that? She couldn’t remember where her satchel was. She closed her eyes again.

  “Tell her more,” Leon said. “She’s listening.”

  “Let’s see. Some of the men have a pack of cards, and they’re betting for rice flower,” Dinah said. “You’ll be smelling it soon, I expect. One of the Havandish boys, he’s maybe thirteen, he’s sitting with his grandfather, back to back. There are a lot of other people in the commons, watching us. I don’t know if they’re just curious or if they’re going to join us. What do you think, Vlatir?”

  “They’ll join us.”

  “There are armed guards around the lodge,” Dinah continued, “and a few cuzines are in the bell tower with their bows, but they’re just watching.”

  Gaia was half listening, but it was easier to let her mind wander to the back porch of her parents’ home and remember how cool it had been in the mornings when she woke up under the mosquito netting. We should be raising more chickens, she thought. A little chick pecked its way out of a shell, but then it began pecking at her eyelid. That wasn’t right. She couldn’t have chicks in her eyeballs.

  “Don’t cry, Mx. Dinah,” Leon said. “Here. I thought you libbies were supposed to be tough.”

  “It’s just she looks so awful,” Dinah said in a tight voice. “And there’s still hours and hours to go.”

  “The Matrarc will change her mind. You’ll see,” Leon said. “Dominic came to the window a minute ago. He must be talking to her. Go tell them Gaia says she won’t give in.”

  Dominic. Dominoes. Gaia used to play with dominoes, white ones with black dots. The dots floated upward, always small no matter how close they came. The baby chicks grew afraid. Gaia tried to shoo the dots away, but that brought a twisted burning to her wrist.

  Stay still, Gaia’s mother said. No more moving.

  Listen to your mother, squirt, her father said.

  “Okay,” she whispered. She listened to her mother. She did not move. And in time, she was able to forget the chickens and the dots burning in her face, and sleep.

  It was much later that the pain woke her. It was in her wrists first, spreading like fire along her arms, and then it was in her neck and her face. There were hands on her, savage, terrible arms, tipping her. She opened her eyes partly to see nightmare trees rolling overhead, and her limp, burning hands were lowered at an impossible angle onto her own chest. She couldn’t move anything herself, not the smallest muscle, except her eyelids, and they burned, too.

  “Be gentle. You’re hurting her.”

  “On three.”

  No, she thought. Don’t shake me.

  There was counting, and then they shook her all over. It was the most complete pain she’d ever experienced, a shattering explosion in every molecule of her body, and in three seconds she was gone again.


  the matrarc’s choice

  HER EARS CAME ALIVE first, hearing the quiet sound of water moving in a bowl.

  “They waited too long,” came a voice in the darkness. “It’s their own fault.”

  She was afraid to open her eyes, afraid she would start to hurt again, and then something cool and soft touched her face. It was a merciful, beautiful sensation, and her cheeks welcomed the sweetness of it.

  “I think she’s coming around. Gaia, can you hear me?” Leon asked.

  “Peter?” she asked. Did they free him?

  The coolness vanished.

  Then a woman’s voice came, and the coolness was light and dabbing again. “Peter’s here, too,” Dinah said. “They released him first, just as you wanted.”

  Gaia tried to move her head, but sharp pains ran down her neck. She gasped and held still.

  “The Matrarc’s husband wants to know if she can come,” said a man’s voice.

  “Tell him there’s no possible way,” Leon said.

  “It’s urgent.”

  “See for yourself,” Leon said.

  As cool air moved around her, she opened her heavy eyelids for the first time. She was in a quiet room, a small living room, and when she saw the shelves of books and the rose-colored lamp, she remembered Dinah’s place.

  “We got trouble breaking loose all around the village,” the man said. “I’m just saying. If you could get her up there to the lodge, it might help.”

  “Get out,” Leon said. “Now.”

  She tried moving her finger and found she could.

  Did the Matrarc have her baby? she asked, but no words came out.

  “Here, Mlass Gaia. Try this,” Dinah said.

  Gaia moved her lips against the rim of a cup, and a pure sip of water wet her tongue. She tried to lift her hand for the cup.

  “It’s all right, I’ve got you,” Dinah said.

  She was helping her up enough to drink, and more of the liquid was smoothing along the dryness of Gaia’s throat. Gaia let out a moan of pleasure and greed. “More,” she said hoarsely. She wanted to see Leon, but she couldn’t find him without turning her head. There was a person-shaped lump on the cot opposite hers, and when she saw his light brown hair, she realized he must be Peter, only his face was burned bright red, and he was all crumpled looking, like he’d been dropped by a giant and squashed by the giant’s foot.

  “Giant,” she mumbled. That was kind of funny, actually.

  “Can you understand me?” Dinah asked. She was dabbing Gaia’s face with a damp cloth again.

  Gaia shifted her gaze to the libby’s face, and slowly licked her lips. “Yes,” she whispered, concentrating.

  “They left you in the stocks for ten hours,” Dinah said. “Nearly the whole time of Peter’s sentence. Do you remember?”

  She did. Much of it. She remembered the spider, and Leon’s voice always near. She remembered pain unbelievable when they took her out.

  “Where’s Leon?” she asked.

  “He’s here,” Dinah said.

  She had to wait until he moved into her line of sight, and finally he did. He’d never looked so serious, with his dark eyebrows lowered and his intense blue eyes regarding her carefully. Dinah gave her seat to him. Gaia felt the tightness in her throat easing again.

  “We won?” Gaia asked.

  He tenderly lifted her hand, bending near to press his cheek against her knuckles. “We did,” he said. “You did. There were over eight hundred people with us by the end, and more were coming. The Matrarc had to let you go. If she’d waited another two hours, we would have had a majority, and she knew that.”

  “Eight hundred?”

  How could she not have known that? How long had she been unconscious? A banging noise came from outside, and then a cheer and laughter.

  “They’re outside, most of them,” Leon said. “They followed us here, and they’re waiting to see if you’re all right.”

  “I’m good,” she said.

  He smiled, but he was wincing, too. “You’re not good,” he said. “Your poor little hands.”

  He turned over the one he held, and she saw a raw, bruised discolor
ation ran around it in a ring just where her hand widened beyond her wrist. The weight of her arms and sagging body had hung from there and from her neck, too. That must be why it was so painful to turn her head, even though she hadn’t broken anything.

  “We have to finalize it,” she said. “I need to talk to the Matrarc. We need to assemble everyone for a first vote.”

  “In time, but first you need to rest,” he said. “You’re nearly dead.”

  “How’s Maya?”

  “She’s fine. Josephine’s in the bedroom with her and little Junie, too.”

  Gaia looked more carefully at Peter and found he was still out cold. “Did the Matrarc have her baby?” she asked.

  “Not yet.”

  That concerned her. Gaia tried to move again, but her muscles were too weak, and all she managed to do was smooth her fingers over his. “Do you have a stretcher or something?” she asked. “To take me up to the lodge?”

  “I said you’re not going,” Leon said.

  “Just this one last thing,” Gaia said. “You helped me before.”

  He touched the hair on her forehead, smoothing it back, and his eyes turned unbelievably sad. “I should be shot for having any part of it.”

  “You don’t mean that.”

  He ducked his face away right when she most wanted to see him. She reached slowly to thread her stiff fingers through his dark hair. “Leon, what’s this?”

  “I had to sit beside you and do nothing, all that time,” he said.

  She hadn’t guessed what that would be like for him. She tried to pull his hair, and when he looked up again, the traces of agony were written plainly in his features.

  “But now we can get rid of the stupid laws,” she said. She knew how he hated injustice. “It’ll be completely different here, fair for all the libbies and men, too.”

  “That’s what kills me,” he said. “You did it in part for me.”

  “Of course I did,” she said, surprised. “I just wish I’d realized what I needed to do before I kissed Peter. I’m so sorry about that.”

  “Please don’t. I can’t stand to have you apologizing to me.” He gently smoothed back her hair again, as if he couldn’t resist touching her.

  “That’s right,” she said, smiling. “I apologize all the time and it never fixes a thing.”

  “Gaia, don’t be mean. You know I never meant that.”

  She kept hoping to evoke an answering smile in his eyes, and finally it came, warm and sad and just for her. He truly was endearingly, killingly handsome when he smiled.

  “I need you to do something for me,” she said.

  His smile vanished. “No.”

  She laughed, and it didn’t hurt so much. “How did you guess? Take me up to the Matrarc. I really need to go. Maybe you could ask eight hundred people to carry my cot.”

  “How do you think we got you here?” he said.

  A dozen lamps glowed in the atrium, and the mladies and mlasses cleared to make room for Gaia’s cot and the men who carried her in. Gaia had never seen men in the atrium, and they seemed inordinately large now, filling the space with their tall, strong bodies.

  She sat up carefully. The clean blouse and trousers she’d borrowed from Dinah felt loose on her. She’d drunk some willow bark tea and eaten a little, enough so that her mind was clear even if she was still incredibly weak and sore.

  Above, at the second-floor railing, Taja appeared and looked down at her. “You’re here at last,” she said. “Come up quickly.”

  Gaia took a look at the staircase and put out a hand to Leon. “Carry me?”

  Leon slung her satchel over his shoulder and lifted her securely into his arms. She held tightly to his shirt, and as he carried her up the steps, she concentrated on trying to hold still, because even the little bumps of his footfalls traveled through her sore body, bringing new vibrations of pain. She was sweating by the time he passed into the Matrarc’s room.

  One look at the Matrarc told her she was in very bad shape. Dominic, Taja, and Chardo Will all looked up expectantly.

  Leon set Gaia gently on a chair beside the bed, and she leaned forward slowly to brace her elbow on the mattress and prop her chin on her hand, supporting her neck.

  “Olivia, darling,” Dominic said gently to his wife. “Mlass Gaia’s here.”

  The Matrarc’s voice was slow and sonorous, and she spoke distinctly despite her obvious exhaustion. “I didn’t think you’d come.”

  “You should have let her out of the stocks hours ago,” Leon said.

  “Leon, don’t,” Gaia said instantly.

  “It’s Vlatir?” the Matrarc asked.

  “Yes,” Dominic said. “I’ll make him go.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” the Matrarc said. “He can stay.”

  Gaia glared at Leon. He shrugged, leaning back against the wall. “Gaia’s nearly dead,” Leon said. “You’d know if you could see her.”

  “That makes two of us,” the Matrarc said.

  Dominic turned to his wife, and the others went still for a moment.

  Gaia beckoned to Leon to bring her a basin and water, and she straightened to wash her hands. The Matrarc lay on her right side, her blind eyes staring toward the black window, her huge belly extended before her. Dominic held her right hand in both of his. Taja was backed into a corner near the door. Will sat at the foot of the bed, his sleeves rolled back and a roll of bloodied towels in a basin beside him.

  “When did you come?” Gaia asked him.

  “As soon as she let you and Peter out. I’ve been useless, though, I’m afraid.”

  Drying her hands, Gaia gave the Matrarc a long, searching look. “You agreed to let all the men and libbies vote when you let us out of the stocks. You realize that, don’t you?”

  “Of course I do. It’s the end of Sylum.”

  “Olivia, you need to think of yourself now, and the baby,” Dominic said. “Let it go.”

  The Matrarc clenched her face as a contraction came, and with growing concern, Gaia saw it lacked the intensity and duration to be productive.

  “How long has she been in labor?” Gaia asked.

  “Ten hours,” Dominic said. “She delivered her last four babies in half this much time.”

  “Have any of you examined her?” she asked, turning to Will.

  “I tried,” Will said. “It didn’t feel right, but I had no idea what to do. There’s been a trickle of blood on and off.”

  Everything about this looked wrong to Gaia.

  “Do you feel movement from the baby?” she asked the Matrarc.

  “Sometimes. Not as much as before.”

  “She didn’t tell us that,” Dominic said, looking anxious.

  “I think it would be best if I sat on the side of the bed. I need to be able to examine her and I can’t stand well,” Gaia said.

  Will shifted out of the way, and Leon helped her.

  “Lift her gown for me,” she said.

  Dominic reached to pull the Matrarc’s gown up, and Gaia saw an alarming pattern of black veins already spreading across the mother’s belly.

  “Mlady Olivia,” Gaia said. She rested her wrist lightly on the Matrarc’s arm. “Tell me whatever you can. What do you feel?”

  “I feel like I’m plugged. Like I’m pushing all I can, but the baby’s just plugged in.”

  Gaia spread her hands on the woman’s stomach, palpitating slowly, and then she put her ear to the warm skin and listened carefully for the faint, fast heartbeat of the baby within. It always made her think of butterfly wings, and it was there, urging her to hurry. She straightened to feel around more carefully, until she could feel knees and the back, and knew the baby was lined up normally, which was at least something.

  “I’m going to examine you internally now,” Gaia said.

  Gaia ignored the creaking pain in her own arms and gently reached inside, feeling carefully for the cervix, which was fully effaced but only about four centimeters dilated. Where the hard lump of a baby’s he
ad normally should be, she found a tight, stretchy substance instead, and as her fingers continued to prod, in her mind’s eye she constructed an image of what she was feeling. The mother was, indeed, plugged. The baby’s placenta had grown across the opening of the uterus, like a living mass of purple dough over the funneled opening of a soft chute, and even though it had torn partially, there was no way for the baby to come through. If it tore much more, the baby would die quickly.

  Gaia pulled out and sagged back. She reached for the basin again, and Leon held it while she dipped her hands in the water, where the blood swirled.

  “You see?” the Matrarc said.

  “Yes,” Gaia answered. Her heart grew heavy. There was a choice to be made soon. It might already be too late.

  “Taja?” the Matrarc said.

  “I’m here, Mom.”

  “Get the others. I want to say goodbye to my children.”

  Taja glanced at Gaia, her expression stunned, and then she slipped out the door. As it clicked closed, Dominic seemed to wake up.

  “What are you talking about?” Dominic said to his wife. He turned to Gaia. “What’s wrong?”

  “I’m sorry,” Gaia said as gently as she could. “The baby’s placenta is blocking the cervix.”

  “What does that mean?” he demanded.

  “The organ inside the womb that feeds the umbilical cord, the placenta, has grown across the opening of the womb,” Gaia said. “It means the baby can’t get out. It’s plugged in.”

  “Then cut the thing away,” Dominic said. “Pull it out.”

  “Go in with a blade? The baby would die in the process, even if I could do it quickly,” Gaia said. She could imagine all the blood.

  Dominic laughed helplessly. “We can’t just leave the baby in there forever.” He searched Gaia’s face, then looked back at his wife, distressed. “Let the baby die, then,” he said. “Save my wife.”

  Gaia didn’t know what to tell him. She couldn’t take the placenta and the baby out without massive hemorrhaging, and she knew what happened then. That was how her own mother had died. Fear backed up inside her, cold and hard.

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