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       Prized, p.30

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  Leon was studying her closely, but then he nodded.

  “I’ll see if Norris needs a hand,” Leon said.

  “Thank you,” she said.

  “What’s going on?” Peter asked, his voice low. He did not sound happy.

  There was no nice way to say it. She tried to still the clamoring in her veins. “I think I’m falling for Leon,” she said.

  He stared, visibly registering her words. “Do not say that. You can’t possibly say that.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “We were just in the stocks together for ten hours,” he said. “You’re just confused.”

  She shook her head infinitesimally.

  “No,” he protested, his tortured gaze burning into hers.

  “What has he done? I don’t believe it. Mlass Gaia, we have something. You can’t just say it isn’t there.”

  “I know,” she whispered. “But it isn’t enough. It doesn’t compare.”

  He jerked back up out of his chair. She could feel eyes turning in their direction. Peter looked like he was going to burst out of his own skin.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice aching.

  “When did this happen? How could this happen?” he demanded.

  “At the winner’s house.”

  “After you and I—” He stopped, lowering his voice again. “After I was arrested?”

  She nodded.

  He sat down again, facing her, and this time he took both of her hands in his with infinite care, gently turning them over and tracing the lines of her bruise. A shiver ran over her palm, disturbing her further. Maybe she wasn’t as certain as she thought.

  “Look,” he said, quietly decisive. “We did this together. We have the same marks.”

  “I know,” she said. It was just getting worse. “You think this is easy for me to say?”

  “Then don’t say it,” Peter said. “You can’t be in love with him. I don’t believe it. You’ll change your mind.”

  “Peter,” she began, but her heart twisted inside her, and she couldn’t speak. She closed her eyes, lowering her head.

  Peter bumped his knees into hers, shifting close. “Why him? He isn’t even nice to you. You deserve so much better.”

  “He is nice to me,” she said.

  “Don’t you hear yourself? You’re just persuading yourself.”

  “No, I’m not. He understands who I really am.”

  “I can understand you,” Peter protested. “We just need a chance together.”

  “It wouldn’t be fair,” she said.

  “I don’t care what he thinks.”

  “It wouldn’t be fair to you,” she clarified. “Don’t you see? That’s why I’m telling you now. I don’t want to lead you on.”

  “You wouldn’t be leading me on,” he said, tugging her hands. “Let me hold you. Let me just hold you again.”

  She wavered, then shook her head, fighting back tears.

  “You were so happy with me. I know you were,” he said.

  “I was,” she admitted.

  “Then what happened? I don’t believe this,” he said again, his voice low. “Why did you get in the stocks with me?”

  “I did it for justice,” she said.

  “For justice,” he repeated, as if the concept eluded him. His hands stilled on hers then, and after an unbearable moment, he let her go. “You really mean it.” He let out a brief laugh. “You could see how I might think you had a different reason.”

  “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

  When he didn’t reply, she had to look up at him, but his searching, lonely expression was too terrible to bear.

  “Well, you did,” he said. “How bizarre. I thought having you in the stocks with me was the worst thing ever, but that was bliss compared to this.”

  “Don’t say that,” Gaia said. “Please, Peter.”

  “Not your sweet voice. Not after what you’ve just done.” He rose to his feet.

  “Where are you going?”

  “I don’t know. Anywhere but here.”

  “You can’t go,” she said. “We need you.”

  He let out an astonished laugh. “Do you think I care?”

  “We’re going to have an election,” she added. “You have to be part of it. It’s what we fought for.”

  “It’s what you fought for,” he corrected her. He turned toward the stairs.

  “Peter, please,” she urged him. “Please stay.”

  He spoke over his shoulder. “I would never have done this to you, Mlass. Do me a favor. Don’t use me politically ever again.”

  He walked stiffly down the stairs. Gaia felt an urge to cry out after him. Everything was going wrong. She clutched her arms around her middle, holding herself tight as if that were the only way to keep herself together. Peter was joined by his family as he met the crowd, and after a moment, Will came up the stairs again.

  “What did you say to him?” Will asked.

  She shook her head.

  “You told him about Vlatir, didn’t you?” Will said calmly, sitting down beside her.

  “I feel so stupid,” she said. “This is all so messed up.”

  She looked back out and saw that Peter’s father was helping him up on the horse. Soon he was moving, and the crowd rippled around him to let him pass.

  She glanced back to Will. “You’ll leave me next, won’t you?” she asked.

  He laughed. “No,” he said, drawing out the word.

  He only confused her more. “Why not?” she said. “I’m a disaster for anyone but Leon.”

  “I don’t much mind a disaster, I guess,” Will said. “Let’s get this election squared away.”

  Leon returned then. “Hey,” he said quietly. When he lowered a warm mug into Gaia’s hands, he wrapped his own fingers around hers to help steady the drink and lift it to her lips. She couldn’t meet his gaze. Instead, she forced herself to take a swallow, and then drank more, willing the warm tea to ease down her tight throat.

  “Where’s Peter?” Leon asked.

  Gaia peered mutely into her cup.

  “I believe he’s defected,” Will said.

  Leon glanced across at him. “But you’re here.”

  Will merely waited on Gaia’s other side, his hands resting on his knees, saying nothing more. She felt Leon’s gaze return to her, speculative. There was nothing to say about Will. Nothing at all. And even less to say about Peter. If she even tried, she knew she’d become an incoherent mess.

  Leon leaned closer to Gaia. “I know that can’t have been easy,” he said, and gently tucked her hair behind her ear for her. “You okay?”

  She nodded unhappily. “I’ll be fine.”

  Leon smiled slightly. “You’re having a very bad day, aren’t you?”

  “That’s what it is,” she said, with a choked laugh. How he could make her feel a little better, even then, she didn’t know.

  “We need to do this soon,” Mlady Roxanne said, coming out the door. “Are you ready, Mlass Gaia?”

  The crowd by then was enormous, and an air of excitement buzzed through it, even stronger than the implicit threat of the crude weapons. A bat swooped down into the torchlight, banked away, and was gone. Gaia set aside her mug.

  “We’re ready,” Gaia said. “Are all the cuzines here, too? Where’s Mlady Maudie?”

  “She’s on the porch, there, and we brought all the archers down, too,” Mlady Roxanne said, pointing to an overflow of women near one end of the lodge. “They’re on edge, but they’ll wait to see what happens.”

  “Okay,” Gaia said. “We need more light.” She came stiffly to her feet as Will and Leon and several others brought torches nearer.

  The glow around the lodge steps grew as bright as daylight, but orange in hue and sharply scented with smoke.

  Gaia stepped forward into the light. Her body was nearly broken from her hours in the stocks, and she was aware that traces of dried blood from the childbirth smudged her blouse and trousers. She felt old, and sad,
and afraid of all that lay before them, but as she looked out at the crowd, she also felt that this moment was right, that it belonged to her. A calm came over the crowd, rippling slowly outward from the focal point of Gaia, and some new, solemn power came into her.

  There was a soft click behind her, and she turned to see Dominic standing beside the door, watching. A shiver ran along her arms, lifting each tiny hair, and she turned to face the crowd again. She waited, knowing soon the right words would come to her.

  “I think, first of all, I’d like to call for a moment of silence,” she said, touching a hand to her heart. “Please put down your weapons and take a minute to remember Mlady Olivia, our Matrarc. There’s no one who ever cared more for the people of Sylum.”

  A shift and soft clatter followed, and then a stillness spread outward, uniting them. Gaia felt the steady count of her heartbeat beneath her fingers, and then, silently, Mlady Roxanne slid her hand into Gaia’s. Gaia took a half step back and reached for Leon’s hand as well, and looking out in the commons, she saw others joining hands until a quiet, powerful current physically connected them all.

  She heard a sniff behind her. “Thank you,” Dominic said quietly.

  Gaia released Mlady Roxanne and Leon to step forward again. “It’s our time to choose a new leader,” Gaia said, lifting her voice so it would carry. “The Matrarc spoke for the cuzines before she died, and she conceded that the vote belongs to all of us now. Anyone who can understand me and raise his or her voice can vote, and should.” She waited to see if anyone would question this, but the silence waited, expectant. “We’ll start with nominations,” Gaia said.

  “I nominate the teacher, Mlady Roxanne,” called out a woman from Gaia’s right, and there was a spattering of applause from the cuzines. A hopefulness was growing.

  Mlady Roxanne moved forward and stood beside Gaia. Her gap-toothed smile showed as she lifted her hand in a little wave. “Thanks.”

  “Okay, who next?” Gaia called.

  “Chardo Will, the morteur,” called out a man’s voice. “He’d be good.”

  Gaia was surprised, but it made sense. Will glanced questioningly at Gaia, and then moved around her to stand beside Mlady Roxanne.

  “Anyone else?” Gaia asked. “Do the libbies want to nominate anyone?” She looked for Dinah.

  “You,” Dinah called. “I nominate Gaia Stone, the midwife.”

  The responding cheer startled Gaia. She turned to Leon, who nodded at her, and then to Will, who smiled. Mlady Roxanne shifted, making room so the three candidates could stand evenly along the edge of the porch, equally visible.

  Gaia rested a hand on the pillar beside her.

  “I’m honored,” Gaia said. “Of course I am. But I have to tell you something. It matters if you’re going to consider me for your leader.” She took a deep breath. “I believe the shortage of girls means the end of us here, and not in the distant future, but soon. Mx. Josephine’s daughter might be the last girl ever born here.” She gestured toward where Josephine and Dinah stood holding little Junie and Maya.

  Voices mumbled in the crowd.

  “What’s your point? We know this,” Mlady Maudie called from the cuzines.

  “We don’t have to stay anymore,” Gaia said. “It’s a miasma from the swamp that’s keeping us addicted here, and there’s an antidote. We can smoke black rice flower and get away.”

  Astonished gasps and laughter rose from some in the crowd, followed by another ripple of voices.

  “Is that for certain?” Will asked her.

  “Yes,” she said. Now was when she really needed Peter to explain what he’d done to escape.

  Norris came forward. “Let me through here,” he said gruffly. “Listen up!” he called. “The girl’s right. I was smoking rice flower when I fetched back our last Matrarc, Mlady Danni. You remember. And I survived when I should have been dead like she was. I didn’t put that together until just now. We should have been experimenting and trying to leave all this time.”

  Voices called out, and Norris raised a hand to settle them again. “Just listen to Mlass Gaia. Hear what she has to say,” Norris said. “The girl’s got some sense, even if she is one of the cuzines.”

  As the men laughed again, Gaia could feel the tension easing and genuine curiosity focused in her direction. Her gaze settled on Dinah, and the way Maya was sucking on her little fingers.

  “It’s just this,” Gaia said. “I think we need to move away now, with this generation, while we’re still strong. All of us. I don’t mean tomorrow, but as soon as we can reasonably put together a plan. If you elect me, you have to know that’s what I’ll try to do.”

  “If you ask me, the girl’s right,” Norris said, and went down the stairs. A knot of men converged around him, and everyone was talking out in the commons and along the porch. Voices were excited now, lifting into the air with charged energy.

  Leon lifted his eyebrows, smiling at her. “Cause trouble much?”

  “I had to be honest,” she said. “I’m not going to be someone I’m not, especially if they might elect me.”

  He laughed. “No kidding.”

  “It’s more than they can handle, though,” Mlady Roxanne said, drawing near to Gaia. “With all respect, Mlass Gaia, you shouldn’t have told them like that.”

  Will and Dominic stepped nearer, too.

  “You’re underestimating the men,” Will said to Mlady Roxanne. “We deserve to know. It matters to us maybe even more than to the women.”

  “You think they want to leave?” Mlady Roxanne asked, gesturing to the men in the commons. Conversation there was rising to a cacophony.

  Will glanced at Gaia. “If there are more women out there, the men will want to leave. It’ll take them only two seconds to realize that.”

  “You see?” Gaia said to Mlady Roxanne.

  “Did you tell my wife about this?” Dominic asked. “Did she know?”

  Gaia hesitated, then nodded. “I told her this morning. She was afraid the information would divide the community. I’m hoping it will unite us.”

  “Mlady Olivia knew what was at stake,” Mlady Roxanne said. “I can’t believe the very first vote is about destroying Sylum. No wonder she left Mlass Gaia so long in the stocks.”

  “This vote isn’t destroying Sylum,” Will said. “It’s about making Sylum survive.”

  Without another word, Dominic stepped aside and moved further down the porch, touching the wall on his way, as if his sense of balance had been thrown off by his loss. Taja came from the other direction and gently drew her arm through her father’s.

  Mlady Roxanne adjusted her glasses with delicate fingers. “I, for one, am in no hurry to leave Sylum, even with the men involved in the governance now. I suspect the other cuzines will agree with me.” She stepped forward and raised her hand. “All right, my cousins!” she called. “I need your attention.”

  The crowd settled again.

  “Thank you. We’re going to keep this simple,” Mlady Roxanne said. “We’ll first hear the votes for Chardo Will, and then for me, and then for Gaia Stone. Ready?” She pointed to Will. “All those for Chardo Will, say ‘Ay.’”

  “Ay!” came a loud surge of male voices, and then a spontaneous burst of applause and laughter. It was the first time the men and libbies had ever voted for real, and their joy was contagious.

  Will put out a hand, gesturing to Mlady Roxanne. “And now,” he said. “Those for Mlady Roxanne, say ‘Ay.’”

  Another loud “Ay!” echoed through the commons, with a stronger mix of female voices. Of the two votes, Gaia guessed Will’s had been a little larger, but she couldn’t be sure.

  Mlady Roxanne turned to Gaia and put a hand on her shoulder. Gaia looked briefly to Leon, who watched her steadily, a slight smile curving his lips, and then she turned to face the crowd.

  “And finally,” Mlady Roxanne said, “those in favor of Gaia Stone, say ‘Ay!’”

  The sound that followed was deafening, a roar of approval
from every corner of the commons, and then the cheering began.



  WHEN SHE FIRST sank into a hot bath, the heat seeped deeply into her sore muscles. Like some limp, boneless thing, Gaia didn’t even try to move. Her chin hovered at the surface of the water, and she closed her eyes, imagining she could hear the minute bubbles layering over her skin. She didn’t let herself think of the Matrarc dying under her blade, or the people of Sylum, or the future, or Leon or Peter or Will or Maya; she simply existed, and when at last the water began to cool, she worked soap into a lather to wash her hair, dunked, and hauled herself out, half blind, only to fall asleep the instant she hit her bed.

  She made it to the funeral the next day, but otherwise she rested in the lodge, listening to anyone who had concerns about Sylum and how it was going to be run. She ate slowly, finding even a soup spoon heavy. She asked Mlady Roxanne, Will, Dinah, Dominic, Mlady Maudie, and half a dozen others to serve as advisors, and though Dominic declined, the others began to draw up a framework of basic laws that would be fair to all. Dominic, Taja, and the rest of the Matrarc’s family stayed up on the bluff, and Gaia knew they mourned deeply. Dominic offered to vacate the Matrarc’s house up on the bluff for her, but Gaia declined. She moved back to the lodge, to the little first-floor bedroom she’d slept in when she’d first arrived, but with the bars removed from the window.

  “You could live with me,” Dinah offered. “We’d have fun.”

  “The lodge has a nicer bathtub,” Gaia confessed. “And it’s just easier to run things from here.”

  It would be days before Gaia could move again without aching, weeks before the last pain in her neck and wrists was gone. Josephine took a bedroom in the lodge, and the mlasses shared the work and pleasure of raising little Junie and Maya. Leon and Norris agreed to oversee conditions at the prison and determine which cases warranted review, so Leon spent his days divided between the prison and the lodge, where he was often near Gaia. At night, Leon slept in an extra hammock in the cabin Norris shared with his cousin’s family, where he wasn’t too far from the lodge. Mlady Roxanne took charge of expanding the school to include the boys and men who were most interested. On a practical level, many things went on as before, but everything felt different, full of promise and trepidation, both.

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