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       Prized, p.31

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Whenever anyone asked Gaia how soon they’d leave Sylum, she said it was too soon to know. Conversations about who might go and who might stay were rife, and Gaia decided it best not to push anyone too hard, for now. She trusted, in time, the majority would persuade the others in their families.

  Peter went back out to the perimeter, where he and a dozen of the other outriders began a series of expeditions south, experimenting with doses of the black rice flower and scouting sites for the future exodus.

  “Will he ever want to see me again?” she asked Will after a meeting once in the atrium.

  “Honestly? We don’t talk about you,” Will said. “He hardly talks at all, frankly. But if I had to guess, I’d say no, he won’t want to see you. I think the nicest thing you could do for him would be to leave him alone.”

  The thing was, she missed Peter. She hated feeling like she would never be able to put things right with him, or laugh with him again, or see his eyes all warm and joyful. Even worse, she couldn’t escape the feeling his unhappiness was her fault, and guilt plagued her. Though Leon offered to listen, talking to him about Peter was impossible for her, so she did the only thing she could: she locked the black swirl in a box in the back of her mind and tried not to remember it was there.

  As the days progressed toward the full moon, it became clear that most of the men wanted the tradition of the thirty-two games to continue. Gaia realized the competition would be an important emotional outlet and serve as a celebration to give credibility to the new regime. So she proposed a change that was immediately popular: only women who were present at the games and at least fifteen years old could be chosen as prizes. Mlasses who didn’t want to be chosen simply had to stay away.

  “Are you going to the games?” Leon asked her once in passing.

  She smiled. “What do you think?”

  He smiled back. “Just checking.”

  The night of the games, Peony stopped in the lodge kitchen to see if Gaia wanted to walk with her down to the shore for the bonfires that would follow.

  “An excellent idea,” Norris said to Gaia. “People need to see you, especially since you won’t be at the games. They have to get used to you as the new Matrarc.”

  Gaia still wasn’t used to having the title refer to her. “I thought I’d go to bed early with a book,” she said.

  “No hiding. You need to get used to yourself as Matrarc, too,” he added. “When Mlady Olivia first took over after your grandmother, she was always around talking to everybody.”

  “You told me. I’ve been doing that. You’ve seen me,” she argued.

  “But tonight’s important. I can watch Maya for you, or Mx. Josephine can, but you need to get out there.”

  “I see,” she said, smiling. She stroked Una’s soft fur and glanced up from the rocker. “You just want to take over with Maya. Grandpa.”

  “Can I help it if she adores me?” Norris said. “And it’s Uncle. Uncle Emmett.”

  Gaia walked down to the shore with Peony and helped throw extra logs on the five bonfire piles that were ranged down the beach. They could hear the cheers from the field, distant and unified. Even the laughter came in waves.

  The sky streaked orange and purple over the marsh as the sun dropped below the bluff, and after the games ended, more and more people began milling between the bonfire piles. Partiers were supplying cider, and she caught whiffs of rice flower smoke. Guards, too, were present in pairs at the fringes. She’d assigned the same number that the Matrarc had designated the month before and hoped, with the new climate, it would be enough.

  Peony unfolded a couple of blankets, and they sat down by the wood pile nearest the main road.

  “Is this visible enough?” Gaia asked.

  Peony nodded. “Norris would approve. I’m glad it hasn’t gotten too cold yet. That red’s a good color on you. Where’s Leon?”

  Gaia glanced down at her new sweater. “He’s at the games. I asked him to keep an eye on things there for me.”

  Peony flicked some sand off her blanket. “I didn’t know he takes orders from you. That’s so, I don’t know, ordinary. Like a regular guy from Sylum.”

  “He doesn’t,” Gaia said. “One of Norris’s nephews was bugging him about it, saying how the last winner ought to at least show up even if he doesn’t play. Besides, I thought he’d have fun going.”

  “So you sent him?”

  “No, he was going anyway, so I asked him—Why am I explaining this?” Gaia asked.

  Peony laughed. “I think it’s nice. You took a totally wild crim and tamed him.”

  Gaia curled her knees up in front of herself and hugged them. “That’s not true.”

  “It’s what my mother said. I think so, too. Everybody does.”

  Gaia rested her cheek on her knee and gazed absently at the big logs, puzzling it over. She wasn’t the only one who’d changed, she realized. Only a few weeks ago, Leon had openly fought the guards on the thirty-two field and practically jumped down Gaia’s throat. Now there was something happy and generous in the way he treated everyone, and not just Gaia. It was in the courteous way he addressed Mlady Maudie, who still ran the lodge, and the way he hefted things for Norris in the kitchen between their discussions of the crims. When she went looking for Maya, she often found the baby over his shoulder, even when she could have been sleeping in her crib.

  But none of that made him tamed. “It’s really not like that,” Gaia said. “He’s just being who he always was inside.”

  Peony tossed a pebble toward the pile of wood. “It’s sweet to see, in any case. Say, I never thanked you for what you said to my mother.”

  While she was making rounds of the village in the days after the election, Gaia had gone to find Peony’s mother and assure her that Peony’s miscarriage would remain confidential, even if she didn’t go ahead with the arranged marriage. Peony’s mother had thanked her and said the family would consider that.

  “It wasn’t much,” Gaia said.

  “It turns out I’m sort of liking Phineas.” Peony dropped her voice. “Will you induce any more miscarriages if someone asks you?”

  “I’ve been thinking about that. I know the Matrarc wouldn’t want me to, but I still think it’s a private decision. Do you regret what we did?”

  “No. It’s different now, too,” Peony said. “If I got pregnant now, and got kicked out of the cuzines, I’d still have the same rights as any other woman. They can’t take babies from libbies anymore, can they?”

  “Never again.” It gave Gaia tremendous joy to know Josephine would never be separated from Junie.

  The beach thronged with people now, some throwing yet more wood on the bonfire piles and others passing cider. Young boys hunched over on the dock, peering down into the dark water. The light of the sky was retreating behind the bluff, and someone lit the farthest bonfire.

  Gaia looked toward the road, but instead of Leon, she saw Will walking across the sand with more men from the games. He peeled off to join them, and Dinah arrived at the same time.

  “Hey, Will,” Gaia said. “Who won the games?”

  “Walker Xave. He picked one of the young mlasses, a fifteen-year-old named Leila.”

  Gaia would have to check that the girl had an astute chaperone at the winner’s cabin. She glanced at Peony, who was blushing faintly and didn’t meet her gaze. Dinah spread out her blanket, and her son Mikey, running by, stopped to give her a hug.

  “Did Peter come to the games?” Peony asked.

  “No,” Will said.

  Gaia shifted uncomfortably. “Did you see Taja there?” she asked Will.

  “No. I heard she stayed up on the bluff with her dad,” Will said. “They’ve got their hands full, but I guess it’s working out to have Mlady Beebe’s family next door. Was that your idea to send them up?”

  “I’m sure it would have occurred to her if I hadn’t suggested it. She saw immediately that it was the thing to do,” Gaia said. “She’s good to nurse both babies.”
>
  As Dinah sat, Mikey curled up beside her, and she passed him a handful of sunflower seeds to shell and nibble.

  “Are you joining us?” Dinah asked Will. “Or just standing around? We have room.”

  He glanced at Gaia, then took a place on Dinah’s blanket and lay back on an elbow, crossing his ankles. Dinah’s son passed him a seed. So far, none of the libbies had asked to have their biological children restored to them, but Gaia wondered if any would. That would take some delicate handling.

  “I’ve been thinking,” Dinah said. “A lot of our men are excited to leave Sylum, but the Enclave might not be pleased about two thousand refugees showing up on their doorstep.”

  “That’s a complication,” Gaia said. “We’ll have to prepare. We can’t arrive all needy, and we have to be able to defend ourselves.”

  “You could teach all the men to shoot, too,” Will asked.

  Gaia picked up a flat, circular stone to twiddle. “We could. The problem is, no matter how much we train, our arrows and swords won’t stand a chance against the Enclave’s rifles. We’re better off going prepared to negotiate. We have something they want.”

  “What’s that?” Dinah asked.

  “We’re a new gene pool.”

  The Protectorat, Gaia was certain, would immediately see the potential of her new people. He might be interested in having his son back, too, she thought uneasily.

  “That sounds scary,” Peony said. “Like they’d experiment on us.”

  “No,” Gaia said, laughing. “Their medicine isn’t that advanced. I just think our unmarried men from the pool will be especially welcome inside the wall to help diversify the gene pool there. It’s a win-win situation.”

  “You’re sure?” Dinah said.

  “Nothing’s sure,” Gaia said. “Would you rather we head west? Or become nomads? I don’t know how they even survive.”

  The others exchanged glances. “At least we have some idea what we’re going to with the Enclave,” Will said. “They have resources there.”

  “Not to mention we know it exists. That’s a plus,” Peony added, and the others laughed.

  Gaia looked toward the road again for Leon, but he still wasn’t coming. It began to feel vaguely lonely to her. Stars were coming out one by one, and the eastern horizon glowed where the moon would soon rise over the marsh. Some men farther down the beach began to sing. She wondered where Peter was, and what he was doing, and if he were alone. She curled her knees up again, snuggling into her sweater.

  One of the guards arrived with a torch. “Hello, Mlass Matrarc,” he said, and reached in to touch the flame to the dry kindling at the heart of the wood pile. Then he lit two more places. Gaia loved the first scent of smoke.

  “Thank you,” Gaia said. “How’s everyone doing?”

  “Good so far. You enjoy yourself now.”

  Gaia turned her face from the growing heat to look once more toward the road, deepened now with the shadows of last dusk. Finally, she saw Leon. Finally, he was coming, and she inhaled deeply as everything inside her felt whole again. He looked different in a white shirt that caught some of the firelight. He’d brought Maya. He paused near the upper edge of the shore, scanning the crowd, with the trees behind him and the last of the daylight tainting the sky a rich indigo above him.

  She waved, and when he didn’t see her, she rose stiffly to her feet and waved again. When he still didn’t see her, she turned her back on the fire and began crossing the dark sand toward him, moving slowly as she had ever since her day in the stocks. He was gazing farther down the beach, standing with his profile to her, his expression as focused as always. She liked the way he absently patted the baby in her yellow blanket and the curving, casual line of his back. When he finally turned to see her, he broke into an easy stride, and then he was smiling, too.

  “Hey,” she said when they met. “What took you so long?”

  “Maya was nursing, so I had to wait to bring her down,” Leon said. “I thought she’d like to see the bonfires.”

  Gaia cupped her fingers loosely around the baby’s little head, and saw that her eyes were closed in contented sleep. She thought Leon was incredibly sweet. “She doesn’t see much when she’s asleep, you know. New shirt?”

  “One of Norris’s cousins offered me an extra. They’re nice people,” Leon said. “You know, Josephine told me she tried to get you to make me a shirt and you said no.”

  “I’m going to kill her.”

  Laughing, he shifted the baby into the nook of his arm. “Dominic sent something down for you,” he said. He slid something into her palm, and she knew by the cool solid weight that it was the Matrarc’s monocle.

  Gaia’s mirth seeped away. “I told him I didn’t want it.”

  “I know. He wants you to have it anyway, evidently. I think you should accept it.”

  Gaia closed her fingers around it, feeling the metal and glass warming in her hand while her thoughts churned.

  “She’s complicated for you, isn’t she?” Leon said.

  She nodded. She didn’t know if she’d ever understand it. Her relationship with the Matrarc had been a labyrinth of submission and rebellion, coercion and pleading, but her death had been the worst of all. It wasn’t at all the same as what had happened with Gaia’s mother.

  “She made me a killer for real this time,” Gaia said. “I know she was only thinking of her baby, but if feels like she did it to me on purpose.” It sickened her, what she’d done.

  Leon put an arm around her shoulder. She felt awkward, stiff, but she let him rock her nearer.

  She lifted the monocle to see firelight catch in the lens, and then thought back to the morning in the atrium when the Matrarc had gently touched her face, learning who she was. It still made her uneasy to think of the strange, charismatic power the Matrarc had had over her, as if she’d been able to see deep inside her. The Matrarc’s strength and influence hadn’t vanished just because she was dead. If anything, she had proven how strong she was when she chose death to let her baby live. Logically, by daylight, Gaia knew that.

  But the nightmares. She couldn’t hide from self-loathing there. Her nightmares were awash with death and blood.

  Leon gave her shoulder a squeeze, and she deliberately made herself let go of some stiffness.

  “You’re so hard on yourself,” he said. “You know what I think?”

  “What?”

  “You were the only one who could help her. The only one, Gaia.”

  She nodded slowly. “I’ll think about that.”

  “And her baby’s alive because of you. Think about that, too.”

  As Gaia pulled the chain of her locket watch from around her neck, Leon let her go. She undid the clasp, looped the monocle on, and reattached it. When the necklace fell on her chest again, it was a little heavier and bulkier than before, but after all, it did belong to her.

  “I’ll have to thank Dominic,” she said.

  “You okay?”

  She nodded.

  “Really?”

  She smiled. “Yes. I really am.” She glanced ahead to the bonfire where her friends sat. “You know what Peony said? This is strange. She thinks I tamed you.”

  Leon laughed. “You don’t like that?”

  “It’s just not right,” she said.

  “No, not exactly,” he said. He shifted to face her more directly. “I wonder if you’d clear something up for me.”

  “What?”

  The flickers of the bonfire cast gleams over his complexion and turned his hair a satiny black. He paused to tuck Maya’s little hand into her blanket, and then he still didn’t speak.

  She started to smile. “You going to tell me, or am I supposed to guess?”

  He peered down at her, oddly frowning and hopeful. “It’s just, when you turned me down that time, up at the winner’s cabin, I couldn’t tell if you were just saying you couldn’t decide then, or if you were turning me down permanently. Like with a hatchet: done.”

  A tin
gle started behind her heart and became a small, painful twist.

  “I couldn’t decide then,” she said. “That’s all I was saying.”

  “I see. So not the hatchet.”

  “No,” she said. Is that what it had felt like to him?

  He patted Maya’s little back. “So, where does that leave us now?”

  She dug the toe of her loafer into the heavy sand while she tried to figure out what to say.

  “Gaia,” he said gently. “I kind of need to know.”

  The heat of a blush rose in her cheeks. She’d been falling in love with him. She knew that, so why was she holding back? “A lot’s happened lately,” she said. With Peter and everything. She touched a finger to one of the buttons on his shirt, peering at it hard while she smoothed the fabric around it.

  He didn’t say anything, which made it worse.

  “I don’t think I can give you an answer tonight,” she said.

  “Such wild enthusiasm. I think you just did.”

  She cringed. “Leon, no. Really. Please, I just need a little time.”

  “I’m not going to do well with being kept hanging.” He covered her hand with his to keep it still. “Because, from my side of it, I don’t have any doubts. Maybe I didn’t make that clear.”

  “I know,” she said.

  “So what is it, then?”

  “I don’t know exactly. What if I say yes now and then change my mind or something?”

  “You won’t change your mind.”

  “But I could hurt you again,” she said. “I don’t ever want to do that.”

  “You won’t.”

  “I can’t make a commitment until I’m completely sure,” she said. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? For me to be completely sure?”

  “And you’re not.”

  She’d been tricked by her own feelings before, and the hesitation that held her back now was real. How was she supposed to know if what she felt for him would last, that it wasn’t some mistake that would take them both to disaster? She had to be honest with herself and fair to him, too. “It’s such a big decision. All I need is a little more time,” she said. “Just to be sure. Is that too much to ask?”

 
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